The nine-month-old Georgia Election Integrity Act has been a source of political friction since its inception, but it may prove beneficial to some Georgians in upcoming elections.

Buried inside the controversial election-reform law, Senate Bill 202, is a novel voting option for Georgia voters serving in the military or living overseas: ranked-choice voting. 

This year for the first time, Georgians located overseas can use ranked-choice voting for statewide and presidential elections back home.  Here’s how it works: Voters can rank candidates by preference on their ballots. If a candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, he or she is the winner. If no candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated. 

The first-choice votes cast for a failed candidate are also eliminated, and the second-choice candidate on those ballots is elevated to first choice. After that, there is a new tally to determine if any candidate has won a majority of the adjusted votes. The process is repeated until a candidate wins an outright majority.

To date, more than 50 U.S. cities and counties along with two states have adopted some form of ranked-choice voting, according to Rob Richie, the president and CEO of FairVote, a national nonpartisan group that advocates for electoral reform. 

States with some form of ranked-choice voting. Source: FairVote

New York City is the largest U.S. voting population now using ranked-choice voting. Minneapolis and San Francisco also use ranked-choice voting. Like Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana,  Mississippi, and South Carolina also use ranked-choice voting for overseas voters. It also is used in national elections in Australia, Ireland, and the United Kingdom’s Scottish and Welsh Parliaments. 

Overseas voters from Georgia will get their first chance at ranked-choice voting later this year. They will cast votes once during the general election but the ranked-choice voting is expected to capture their choices for any runoffs that follow a general election.

A spokesperson for the Georgia Secretary of State’s office said ranked-choice voting was adopted as a way to avoid problems with overseas mailing, which can be unreliable in getting ballots in time for elections.

Better Ballot Georgia, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to educating people about ranked-choice voting, would like to see the concept used more broadly in Georgia because it would reduce the need for runoff elections.

“Not having all of these runoff elections is sort of the no-brainer for us here in Georgia,” Better Ballot Georgia member Michael Kenig told Atlanta Civic Circle. “It eliminates
the time and cost of runoff elections. That’s why we use the phrase instant runoff voting interchangeably with ranked-choice voting.”

FairVote’s Richie told Atlanta Civic Circle that “Ranked-choice voting is a good idea,” because it gives voters a greater voice in the election process, which motivates candidates to reach out to more voters to earn their vote.

“There are also practical uses. They’re faster, cheaper and better than runoff elections,” Richie added. 

Ranked-choice voting is among the solutions Daniel G. Newman explores in his graphic novel Unrig: How to Fix our Broken Democracy.

 Using ranked-choice voting also could return civility to the electoral process, Newman writes in Unrig. Under the current electoral system, there are typically only two candidates with a chance of winning, he says, which causes candidates to resort to attack campaigns to win. He argues that ranked-choice voting would motivate candidates to reduce their sniping and back-biting to instead gain votes through positive campaigning.

He concluded that state and local governments can save money with ranked-choice voting, because it can eliminate primary and runoff elections, which typically attract only a small number of voters who don’t reflect the population as a whole. “With RCV, there can be just one election,” Newman said.

Walter Shapiro isn’t so convinced about the concept. The Yale University political science lecturer and The New Republic writer has not only written about it, but he also dealt with it first-hand during the New York mayoral primary last June. 

“I found the five [ballot] options to be exhausting, confusing, and it did not lead me to a sense of clarity,” Shapiro, a fellow at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, told Atlanta Civic Circle. Shapiro also was a speechwriter for former President Jimmy Carter

 Shapiro said he has “deep worries” that ranked-choice voting would encourage super-rich, self-funding candidates to dispense with established political parties altogether and run as independents. Ranked-choice voting would eliminate the problem of voters not voting for their preferred candidate, if perceived as less electable, because they don’t want to “waste a vote,” Shapiro conceded, but “eliminating that problem would empower the super-rich to run for more public offices, independent of party.”

For now, Shapiro said, “ I am waiting to figure out what problem ranked-choice voting solves.” 

Not everyone is quick to embrace ranked-choice voting, Richie acknowledged. But he said public opinion polls and research that tracked New York’s use of the system found that most New Yorkers considered it an improvement. “More than 70% of New Yorkers were positive about ranked-choice voting and were glad changes had been made,” he said. “And a bigger number found it was simple.”

What’s the process for a city or county to adopt ranked-choice voting?

It varies from state to state. In Georgia, cities and counties can’t institute ranked-choice voting without a state-enabling law, FairVote’s Rob Richie told Atlanta Civic Circle. Cities and counties in Maryland do not need state approval to enact RCV.  Utah’s state law changed in 2017, enabling 23 localities so far to enact ranked-choice voting. Similarly, Colorado changed its law to make it more supportive of RCV in that state, Richie said. 

“We’re seeing state legislatures showing some real interest in letting cities kind of kick the tires in a sense,” Richie added. “So I think we’ll see more local option bills coming forward in different states.”

Want to know more about ranked-choice voting in Georgia? Check out Better Ballot Georgia.

Daniel G. Newman featured ranked-choice voting in his nonfiction graphic novel Unrig: How to Fix Our Broken Democracy, which Atlanta Civic Circle’s virtual book club has been reading. Newman is the guest speaker for the final meeting January 12 at 7 p.m. All are welcome! Sign up here

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