Ranked Choice Voting is having a moment

We told you about how policies to fix our democracy won big in last week’s elections. But that victory wasn’t just about efforts to expand voting access, fight gerrymandering, and limit the influence of big money in politics.

An even more far-reaching reform also gained ground — so much so that it’s time to start taking this idea seriously: Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV).

In Maine, RCV backers made big strides in their fight to install the system next year — something the state’s voters have already made clear they want. Meanwhile, all four cities that used RCV saw big increases in turnout.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What is Ranked-Choice Voting, anyway?

Under RCV, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no one gets a majority of first-place votes, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated, and her second-place votes are allocated to whoever they went to. If there’s still no candidate with a majority, the process is repeated with third-place votes, and so on, until one candidate has a majority.

The system, reform advocates say, gives voters more choices and prevents “spoiler” situations — as in 2000 when support for Ralph Nader had the perverse effect of helping to elect George W. Bush, even though Al Gore would likely have been the second choice of most Nader backers. That in turn, makes third-party candidates more viable, an added benefit at a time when a growing number of Americans are souring on the two-party system.

The biggest advance for RCV may have come in Maine, the only state so far to have approved the system. That happened via referendum last year, but the state’s Supreme Court then ruled parts of the measure unconstitutional. The ruling was non-binding, but it prompted lawmakers — many of whom always opposed RCV — to pass a law that to delays RCV’s introduction and would scrap it outright by 2021 if it isn’t amended to address the court’s concerns.

In response, RCV supporters launched a campaign to — bear with us — repeal the repeal law, via another voter initiative known as a “people’s veto”. On election day last Tuesday, they gathered around 32,000 signatures — over half the number they need to get the veto initiative on the ballot for June 2018.

If they get the required signatures by February 4, 2018, the repeal law would be put on hold. That would mean RCV would be used for the June 2018 primaries, when both parties will have multiple candidates for governor. In that same election, voters would also decide whether to permanently veto the repeal law. If they decide to do so, it would keep RCV in place.

Got it? If you’re confused, the short version is this: Maine voters appear to support RCV, and they may well get to decide in June whether to keep it.

That would catch Maine up with four cities, which used RCV in their municipal elections for the first time last Tuesday, with positive results.

* In Minneapolis, turnout reached 43 percent of registered voters, up ten percent from four years ago, setting a record for an off-year election. Two days after the election, the winner of the city’s mayoral race joined with some of the candidates he defeated to praise the system.

* Across the river, St. Paul saw turnout of nearly 40 percent, its highest level in at least two decades.

* In Cambridge, Mass., nearly a third of registered voters came out — a 20 percent increase from 2015.

* Takoma Park, Md. saw record-high turnout of about 40 percent of registered voters in the only ward that had a three-candidate race.

The numbers were compiled by FairVote, the election reform group that has been a key player in the push for RCV.

One final sign that RCV is having a moment: A prominent election law scholar argued in USA Today last week that states should use an RCV system to allocate their electoral votes in the presidential race. Doing so, Ned Foley of Ohio State University wrote, would ensure that the winner of the presidential election gets a majority of the vote in all the states whose electoral college votes she receives. That’s something the Founders appear to have intended, Foley writes. But it didn’t happen last year, when, thanks to Jill Stein and Gary Johnson’s candidacies, Donald Trump won several key states including Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Michigan without the support of a majority of those states’ voters.

OK, we’re not likely to see the president elected via RCV any time soon. But there’s no question that, as the evidence of our broken electoral system becomes harder to deny, ideas once considered beyond the fringe are getting a hearing. That’s significant.


Image: Creative Commons

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