The "Small Bites" Approach to Advancing Ranked Choice Voting in Texas
Ranked choice voting (RCV) is on a roll. Advocates have added win after win at the ballot box across the US. When the voting method is put to a vote, citizens tend to overwhelmingly show support for its use.
RCV allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. The method of RCV broadly used in the US is called instant runoff voting, which uses an automatic runoff system based off voters' preferences if no candidate gets over 50% of first choice selections without the added expense of a separate runoff election.
Most of RCV’s successes have been at the ballot box. But, not all states allow citizen referendums to push nonpartisan reform. These states present a bigger challenge because reform advocates have to convince state lawmakers to change a system explicitly designed to benefit them.
It’s a tough sell – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t people up for the challenge.
“Ranked choice voting is truly a nonpartisan change in voting logistics,” says Harriet Wasserstrum of Ranked Choice Voting for Texas.
“It helps Republicans, it helps Democrats, depending on who else is on the ticket, but really it helps elect candidates with broad voter support.”
Texas is one of 24 states that does not have a process by which citizens can push policy changes through ballot measures. Counties and cities can put ordinances on the ballot, but nothing is allowed on a statewide ballot. Wasserstrum and her group have to convince a majority of the legislature’s 181 elected members to support RCV reform.
“Last year, we had three bills that we advocated for,” Wasserstrum said during an interview for IVN. “We had luck with one of our bills for military and overseas voters. That bill passed the House.”
The bill moved over to the Senate late in the session and that is where it died. The Texas Legislature meets every odd-numbered year for 5 months. If something doesn’t get through both chambers before a session ends, or during a special session, it will not be carried over to the next session.
The other bills were RCV reform for primaries, and a county option bill that would allow counties to decide if RCV is right for their elections.
There is no provision in the Texas Election Code for counties and cities to implement a reform like RCV. Austin made history in 2021 as the first city in Texas to pass an RCV measure at the ballot, but the city cannot use RCV for its elections until state law changes.
Ranked Choice Voting for Texas is focused on building its support and crafting its message for the 2023 legislative session. The group knows it specifically needs to make inroads with Republicans to make any measure of progress.
Wasserstrum says that RCV advocates have recent examples of successful uses of RCV by Republicans from which to draw.
“How the Republican Party of Virginia recently used ranked choice voting was brilliant. They decided the best way they can get someone who can actually win in the general election was to use ranked choice voting,” she said.
RCV advocates didn’t have that story to tell in the 2021 legislative session. There were also developments out of Utah that didn’t occur until later in 2021 that Wasserstrum’s group can point to as well to demonstrate how RCV can benefit Republicans.
Twenty-three cities and towns used RCV in Utah in 2021. This is more than any other state in US history.
“Between the Virginia Republican Party and what happened in Utah, I think we have a better story to tell this time around,” remarked Wasserstrum.
An analysis published on IVN in February found that Texas could save over $6 million on low-turnout primary runoff elections with RCV. The turnout for the 2022 primary runoffs was an abysmal 8.1%, according to the Texas secretary of state’s office.
RCV does not guarantee higher turnout in primary elections, but has a record of boosting voter participation in various jurisdictions. It would save Texas taxpayers millions while ensuring the elected officials aren’t picked by less than 4% of the registered voting population.
Wasserstrum believes the best approach going forward is approving ranked choice voting in “bite-size pieces." This would be achieved by a county option bill so that one or more jurisdictions can adopt RCV’s use to see if Texans are satisfied with it.
“It’s a smaller bite than saying all political parties have to use it for all of their primaries,” she explained.
Once there are examples of RCV’s use in Texas, a decision can be made on whether or not to expand the alternative voting method’s use in the state. Wasserstrum is also optimistic that another "small bites" change like using RCV for overseas and military voting is possible in the next legislative session after its success in the Texas House.