Ranked-choice voting continues to grow in popularity — and so have the efforts to ban it.
Advocates believe it has the potential to make voting more representative of the majority, ease intense conflicts between political parties and make gerrymandering nearly impossible. Despite the upsides and successes, bans continue throughout the country.
Ranked-choice voting is a system in which voters can choose multiple candidates in a race. If no one wins the majority of votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. A candidate is declared the winner after a majority of votes is won through a series of elimination rounds. If no candidate wins the majority of first preferences, the candidate with the fewest first preferences is eliminated and those ballots transfer to the voters’ second-ranked candidates. The process repeats until a candidate wins the majority of ballots.
“People don’t feel represented,” said Rachel Hutchinson, senior policy analyst at FairVote, a nonpartisan firm that researches and advances voting reform. “They don’t always like the choices on their ballot. People are ready to feel good about the choices on their ballot, better demographic representation, for leaders who are accountable to the majority and a political culture that’s less negative and focused on consensus building.”
Twice as many ranked-choice voting bills were introduced this year, 106 compared with 44 in 2022, according to Ballotpedia. South Dakota, Idaho, Montana, Florida and Tennessee have banned ranked-choice voting. Republicans have also filed similar ban proposals this year in Arizona, North Dakota and Texas. However, only 17 bills were introduced this year to oppose ranked-choice voting, compared with 33 last year.
Bans at first seem clearly split among party lines. But since the mechanics of ranked choice voting are party neutral, it also receives bipartisan support, explained Kevin Johnson, executive director of the Election Reformers Network, a nonprofit that works to ensure that the institutions running U.S. elections are as impartial as possible.
Maine was the first state to use ranked-choice voting in federal elections, starting with their congressional election in 2018 then expanding to include the first-ever ranked-choice presidential primary. Maine Republicans made moves this year to repeal ranked-choice voting in the state.
Yet in other states, like Virginia, the GOP nominee Glenn Youngkin became governor in 2021 through ranked-choice voting. In Alaska, Democrat Mary Peltola won the state’s lone seat in the House, defeating Republican Sarah Palin to fill the vacancy left by the death of U.S. Rep. Don Young, the longest-serving Republican in congressional history. In the largely blue District of Columbia, the city’s Democratic Party sued Republicans earlier this year to keep ranked choice voting and open primaries off the ballot.
“I do think Republicans have in many places sort of adopted the idea that somehow this is a gimmick that’s going to hurt their party — that’s part of the reason for the bans in places where both parties seem to have resistance to it. I think that’s a traditional reaction of major parties to change,” said Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin.
While ranked-choice voting alone isn’t a silver bullet, the system coupled with multimember districts could be a comprehensive solution to the problem of gerrymandering through the passage of the Fair Representation Act.
LEARN MORE ABOUT RANKED-CHOICE VOTING IN GEORGIA
Hutchinson explained that together with the new proportional version of ranked choice voting, parties are elected according to the share of votes they receive.
“It’s much harder to gerrymander if the results are just going to turn out fair anyway,” she said. “So you definitely can compare choice voting with other types of reforms depending on the nature of the state.”
Ranked choice voting addresses the problem of candidate dropout. During the 2020 election, millions of people voted early before candidates Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and Tom Steyer dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination for president. The idea is that with ranking, voters for those candidates would still have had a choice.
Ranked choice voting can also discourage negative campaign ads. This system gives candidates incentives to win second or third choice for a shot at winning the overall race. So they have to stick to the issues, find common ground with voters and seek their support. Hutchinson also explained that candidates who are women and people of color could also benefit from a second look with a ranking system.
“Ranked choice voting helped New York City and Las Cruces, New Mexico after electing their first majority female city council. Ranked choice voting helped Minneapolis and Salt Lake City elect their first moderate people of color and gave Alaska its first Alaska native congresswoman,” Hutchinson said.
Voter education efforts are necessary for places that want to make the switch. Sometimes voters don’t fully rank all the slots available to them if they don’t know much about the candidates on the ballot, Burden explained. This happened during the Democratic primary for mayor in New York City. Burden also said that candidates would have to campaign differently in a ranked choice environment to make sure that voters know who they are and how the system works.
Johnson said the upside of ranked-choice voting is that it’s fairly intuitive since people make mundane choices in a similar fashion every day. In a letter to the Boston Globe in 2020 he wrote, “We vote for many offices, and not all voters fill out their whole ballot. Should we therefore scrap the electability of many public positions? What matters in our democracy is equal opportunity to participate, not equal use of such opportunities.”
As the country enters its next general election cycle, some voters may have the opportunity to participate in a ranked-choice election. Until then, they’ll have to weigh the benefits of voting reform themselves.
Kristine Villanueva is an editor and educator fluent in community engagement. In addition to teaching at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, her experience in engagement journalism includes leading digital, social media, newsletter and SMS texting strategies to reach disenfranchised communities. She has worked in news organizations such as Resolve Philly, POLITICO, and The Center for Public Integrity where she managed nationwide crowdsourced projects and collaborations. In her off hours, she likes to cuddle her cat, Perseus (aka Percy).
This article is available for republication as part of U.S. Democracy Day, a nationwide collaborative on Sept. 15, the International Day of Democracy, in which news organizations cover how democracy works and the threats it faces. To learn more, visit usdemocracyday.org.