In 2020, Americans found many important measures on the ballot, including the electoral system itself. Voters in various states were faced with the question of sticking to first-past-the-post voting or moving towards a ranked choice voting system––a process that would prioritize electing the candidate most acceptable to the highest number of constituents. Their decision could potentially influence not just the results of local elections but the ideological balance of national politics.
Ranked choice voting (RCV) has been present in the public consciousness for a while, but in the current political climate, its benefits appear specifically appropriate. The conventional method of voting (usually first-past-the-post), where whichever candidate with the most votes wins the position, may sometimes lead to a fragmentation of the vote between candidates with similar platforms. RCV (known in multi-winner elections as single transferable voting) solves this by asking voters to rank candidates in their order of preference. If no single candidate wins the majority of the vote, then the votes for the least popular candidate are transferred to their voter’s second choice. The process repeats until a candidate passes the 50 percent vote threshold. This allows voters to signal their preference for a certain ideological faction with a party without splintering broader party support, which is especially useful in a two-party system. However, it also asks more of the voter: the system requires comprehension of every candidate’s platform instead of just the standouts, and that added labor may discourage some from casting their ballots.
RCV has already been implemented in multiple locations across the United States—mostly cities and notably the state of Maine—and has received multiple endorsements for implementation by politicians across the ideological spectrum. However, its success on the ballot last year had been a mixed bag: of the ten major referendums on the process in 2020, seven have been approved, one rejected, and two, struck entirely.
On November 3 2020, Massachusetts voters rejected a ballot measure for ranked choice voting 55 percent to 45 percent. In a deep blue state well-versed in the political friction between the moderate and progressive wings of the Democrat Party, it was expected that voters would choose to implement RCV, especially given the momentum fueling the measure to the ballot. Voter Choice Massachusetts, a campaign behind the measure headlined by names like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, managed to raise nearly $9 million in support of the bill––blowing their opponents out of the water entirely, who only raised less than $9,000.
However, organizers admitted the result was to be expected given that COVID-19 had disrupted their outreach efforts. “We weren’t really competing against a no campaign . . . we were competing to make sure we could educate enough people about what rank choice voting is,” Evan Falchuk, from the Yes on 2 campaign told Boston.com. Others listed the problem of voter fatigue as a detrimental impact of the bill, saying that fuzzy margins between platforms may disincentivize voters from ranking all the candidates (incomplete rankings in RCV may lead to a complication called ballot exhaustion where some votes from an unpopular candidate aren’t transferred because those voters didn’t rank their next favorite choice, making it increasingly difficult for a clear majority winner to emerge). Whatever the reasons were, with a margin of less than 10 percent, it wouldn’t be unlikely to see RCV on the Massachusetts ballot again sometime in the future.
Albany, California: Approved
In Albany, Measure BB was approved at around 73 percent, changing the electoral process for members of city council and the board of education. This makes the Northern California town the fifth city in California with ranked choice voting. An East Bay Times editorial argues that this decision may help curate a city council more reflective of its population: like many other cities, Albany struggles with an underrepresentation of racial minorities in political positions. Despite the city’s sizable Asian and Hispanic population, the city council remains largely and historically white. RCV has been documented to bolster the outcomes of diverse candidates. Additionally, implementing RCV may protect the city from voting rights lawsuits such as a 2019 case in Palm Desert, California, where the settlement forced the city to adopt RCV for future city council elections.
Alongside Albany, Bloomington (Indiana), Boulder (Colorado), Eureka (California), and Minnetonka (Minnesota) have also approved RCV measures at the local level in 2020.
North Dakota: Removed
In August 2020, a North Dakota state constitutional amendment establishing a redistricting ethics commission and RCV for all statewide races was approved for the November ballot. However, the State Supreme Court struck it down two weeks later on the grounds that the measure had been sponsored using misleading tactics, including omission of the full text of the amendment on petitions (in order for a state constitutional amendment to be sponsored in North Dakota, it must receive signatures in support equivalent to at least 4 percent of the state population. For this specific amendment, that meant around 27,000 signatures, a number which the bill exceeded by almost ten thousand).
It is worth noting that the measure had considerable opposition, including the Brighter Future Alliance Organization, the political nonprofit that brought the lawsuit to court. As chair Pat Finken wrote, “This outcome further demonstrates why we must not allow out-of-state special interests to tamper with our constitution and our elections to further their political agenda.” However, proponents of the bill view the results differently: North Dakota Voters First Chairwoman Carol Sawicki said in response that “There can be little doubt that measure 3 was a threat to political insiders and career politicians in North Dakota.”
On November 3, Alaskan voters weighed in on Ballot Measure 2, an overhaul of election policies that included increased transparency in campaign finance and RCV for general elections. The race was too close to call until a razor-thin margin of 1.6 percent in support was called on November 17.
According to the Anchorage Daily News Editorial Board, 99.5 percent of the $7 million the bill raised in funding were from out-of-state groups, with the implementation of RCV the most controversial part of the bill. In June, the Alaska Republican Party released a scathing statement condemning the bill, announcing that RCV would “water . . . down the power of individual votes” and regulation on campaign financing would destroy “anonymity in political speech . . . a founding American principle.” However, proponents state that the bill “lives up to Alaska’s independent streak” by decreasing the influence of two-party politics in the electoral process. With the passage of the ballot measure, Alaska joins Maine as the only two states with ranked choice voting for general elections.
Ranked-choice voting remains controversial in America, but 2020 has demonstrated the voting method’s acceleration, particularly in local elections.
The last two federal election cycles prove that Americans feel stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to voting, often faced with the disappointing choice of pragmatism versus ideology––the very sentiment RCV attempts to eradicate. If RCV is able to prove its utility in smaller settings, familiar voters and politicians may be more comfortable practicing it on a larger level.
There is also reason to believe that the wins of 2020 may snowball into broader implementations of the voting method in state or federal settings: in his 2019 veto of RCV, California Governor Gavin Newsom stated that the seemingly-convoluted voting method may gain his favor once it’s tested further on a local level. As towns like Albany join the ever-growing list of California cities using ranked-choice voting, the state, and its massive bloc of voters, may find itself deliberating on the topic once again very soon.
Given the amount of skepticism in our democracy, it’s no surprise that regions around the country are considering what additive mechanisms would help right the ship. Instead of limiting the conversation to who runs in our elections, discussing how our elections run could go a long way in creating a process more reflective of its constituents.
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