As ranked choice voting gains momentum, parties in power push back

Across the U.S., party leaders for Republicans and Democrats have taken steps to prevent adoption of the voting system

By: - August 23, 2023 4:30 am
Voters cast their ballots at Boise's Fairmont Junior High

Voters cast their ballots at Boise’s Fairmont Junior High during the Idaho primary election on May 17, 2022. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

Over the past decade, ranked choice voting has become increasingly popular. From conservative Utah to liberal New York City, 13 million American voters in 51 jurisdictions — including all of Alaska and Maine — now use the system, under which voters rank candidates based on preference, leading to an instant runoff in a crowded race.

This year, Democrats and Republicans in power pushed back.

Arguing that ranked choice voting is too complicated for voters to understand, Democrats in the District of Columbia and Republicans in states such as Idaho, Montana and South Dakota took steps to prevent adoption of the voting system.

Earlier this month, the D.C. Democratic Party filed a lawsuit to block a ballot initiative that would adopt ranked choice voting and allow voters without a party affiliation to cast ballots in primaries. The lawsuit argued in part that ranked choice voting might confuse voters, which “could ultimately suppress the voice and influence of voters of color for decades to come.”

If ranked choice voting survives the lawsuit, voters will consider the measure next year. Two of D.C.’s neighbors — Takoma Park, Maryland, and Arlington, Virginia — have used the voting system. A November hearing has been scheduled.

Voters in Nevada will consider a similar ballot question in 2024. Several top Democratic officials in the state oppose it.

Sometimes, when we see party opposition, that can be a reflection of elected officials who know how to campaign, know how to win under the old system, not quite ready to want to throw that system out yet.

– Deb Otis, director of research and policy at FairVote

In April, Montana Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte signed into law a measure that preemptively bans localities from adopting ranked choice voting.

It’s a “complicated process,” Montana Republican state Rep. Lyn Hellegaard said in a state Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in March. Hellegaard, who sponsored the bill, argued that the voting system could delay vote counting by weeks because of the state’s large size.

“It throws voters into a game of odds, rather than informed choice,” she said at the hearing. “This scheme of voting would only solidify the distrust Montanans have in our elections.”

Republican lawmakers in Idaho and South Dakota enacted similar measures this year; Florida and Tennessee banned ranked choice voting last year. Republican-led legislatures approved proposals to ban it in Arizona and North Dakota, but the bills were vetoed by, respectively, Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs and Republican Gov. Doug Burgum.

Understanding the opposition to ranked choice voting

In ranked choice voting, voters rank candidates for an office from first to last. If no candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, the candidate with the least support is eliminated, and the second-place votes on those ballots are distributed to the remaining candidates.

Don’t Vote for Just One: Ranked Choice Voting Is Gaining Ground

The process continues until one candidate reaches a majority.

Proponents of the system argue it encourages candidates to appeal to a broad swath of the electorate, while also leading to a more diverse candidate pool and less negative campaigning.

But the challenge to the status quo has led to opposition from people in power, said Deb Otis, director of research and policy at FairVote, a nonpartisan organization leading the advocacy effort to adopt ranked choice voting.

“Sometimes, when we see party opposition, that can be a reflection of elected officials who know how to campaign, know how to win under the old system, not quite ready to want to throw that system out yet,” she said in an interview.

Republican opposition to the system revved up after the 2022 midterm elections, when former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin lost her congressional bid, blaming her loss on ranked choice voting. Voters in the state had adopted the method in 2020 through a ballot initiative.

Democrat Mary Peltola had plurality support after the first round of voting and eventually won after several rounds of tabulation.

“Ranked choice voting is the weirdest, most convoluted and most complicated voter suppression tool that Alaskans could have come up with,” Palin said in November, according to the Anchorage Daily News. “And the point is, we didn’t come up with this. We were sold a bill of goods.”

Former President Donald Trump, whose lies about the 2020 election continue to influence the GOP, has railed against ranked choice voting in Alaska.

“You never know who won in ranked choice. You could be in third place, and they announce that you won the election,” Trump claimed at an Anchorage rally last summer. “It’s a total rigged deal. Just like a lot of other things in this country.”

But there is nothing for conservatives to fear about ranked choice voting, said Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

It’s not a ploy by Democrats, he said, contrary to what he’s heard from Republicans. The Virginia GOP even used ranked choice voting in 2021 to nominate now-Gov. Glenn Youngkin, he pointed out in an April column.

“If you look at the history and how it’s worked, you realize that it’s neutral between sides of the spectrum,” he told Stateline. “Finding a party candidate who better represents a wide range of voters in that party is good for whatever party adopts it.”

Idahoans for Open Primaries to begin ballot initiative signature drive Saturday

Still, he added, it might be hard to shake some of this conservative opposition, which he said has become more vocal and organized in recent years.

In Idaho, activists are gathering signatures for a ballot initiative that, if approved by voters, would adopt ranked choice voting statewide. Republican Attorney General Raúl Labrador, whose office is tasked with writing the titles of ballot initiatives, was ordered by the Idaho Supreme Court this year to re-write the titles that supporters argued portrayed the idea negatively.

Labrador hasn’t been shy about his disdain for ranked choice voting.

“Let’s defeat these bad ideas coming from liberal outside groups,” he tweeted in May.

What’s next for elections in the U.S.?

Despite this opposition, several other states are poised to adopt ranked choice voting in the coming years, said FairVote’s Otis, who argued it is “the fastest growing election reform in the country,” and could be used by Republicans in some states in next year’s presidential primaries.

Indeed, there were far more bills in state legislatures this year that supported ranked choice voting (74) than opposed it (17), with a handful of bills that would amend existing laws or commissioning studies of the voting system, according to Ballotpedia. There also was a substantial increase in the number of bills, rising from 44 bills in 2022 to 106 this year.

Ranked choice voting also was expanded in Burlington, Vermont, and adopted in Redondo Beach, California, this year.

Voters in Oregon will decide in November 2024 whether to adopt ranked choice voting. The measure was placed on the ballot by the state legislature — the first time this has happened in the country.

The ballot question is the culmination of a multiyear effort with a diverse coalition of voters of color, labor unions, youth groups and agricultural organizations, said Mike Alfoni, executive director for Oregon Ranked Choice Voting, which is leading the ballot initiative campaign.

“It isn’t this frightening overhaul of the system that would disrupt everything that is going on,” he said. “It’s simply an upgrade that gives voters more choice and has better outcomes, especially with open seat races.”

All but two Republicans opposed the measure in the legislature, which Alfoni blamed on the deep partisan divisions of Oregon politics. If approved, the state would implement the system by 2028.

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Matt Vasilogambros
Matt Vasilogambros

Matt Vasilogambros covers voting rights, gun laws and Western climate policy for Stateline. He lives in San Diego, California.

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