Give Ranked Choice a Chance

By Erik Connell
Published May 15th 2009 in The Melon
As a former University of Puget Sound student who worked on the “Yes on Three” campaign to bring ranked choice voting (or, as we called it during the campaign, instant runoff voting) to Pierce County in 2006, I was disappointed to hear the news that the Pierce County Council voted put a repeal measure on the ballot this fall. Its action flies in the face of how well ranked choice voting (RCV) is working in other states and the rising support for the system, which now includes President Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain.

Talking to friends back in Pierce County, the perception is that not enough voters understand the system. This comes as a big surprise to me. Of the countless number of voters that I talked to in 2006, only a single person objected to the system because they thought it was confusing. In the nine other municipalities that have run ranked choice elections this decade, voters have handled it quite well - in fact the number of invalid ballots was very low in Pierce’s RCV races as well. I have faith that people in my former county can handle ranking candidates just as well as they can in any of the other places using RCV.

Take the recent mayoral election in Burlington, Vermont, which had four strong candidates. The campaign was highly touted for its substantive nature and widespread participation of the candidates in debates and public forums. Voters handled the system easily, with only one person casting an invalid ballot out of 8,980 voters. The city spent just three cents per registered voter on voter education, but voters in the lowest-income areas were just as likely to rank additional candidates as voters in high-income areas. The full instant runoff tally was completed less than two hours after the polls closed.

One problem last year in Pierce County seems to be that the county’s educational materials focused only on how to vote, without a word to all the new voters in a hotly presidential race on why to rank candidates. Those rankings are used to make sure your vote counts. After the first choice rankings are counted, a candidate with the majority of the votes is the winner. But if that does not happen, as was the case in some key county races last year, the vote goes to an “instant runoff,” to make sure the strongest candidate wins. Candidates with the fewest number of votes are eliminated, and those who ranked those candidates first now have their vote counted towards their next preference among the remaining candidates. This process repeats itself until one candidate has a majority of the votes.

All the voter has to do is rank the candidates in order of preference: 1-2-3. You are free to simply vote for a single candidate, although ranking a lower choice candidate will never count against your higher choice.

In other Washington elections, all but two candidates are eliminated in low-turnout primaries back in August. RCV keeps all candidates and their ideas before voters in higher turnout November elections, with ranked ballots protecting majority rule and avoiding any problems with “spoilers.” By reducing the number of elections and avoiding some of the costly negative campaigning that predominates in top two races, it also reduces how much money it takes to run and win -and cuts in half how much money special interests and big donors can give to candidates.

Having one election will also save money. The county spent money on going to RCV, but that’s history — now the savings are starting. Because of RCV, this fall’s special election for auditor will need just one countywide election - a big savings. If RCV were used for all city elections in Pierce County, the August primary could be eliminated altogether, saving much more.

The county council’s hasty action puts these benefits at risk despite just one election with ranked choice voting and two separate votes of the people upholding the system. Voters approved ranked choice voting in 2006 and upheld it in 2007 for a reason, however. They wanted more democratic elections for less cost and didn’t like the idea of the pick-a-party primary in county elections. These were certainly noble goals, and it would be a disservice to citizens of Pierce County to scrap the system now.

Erik Connell is a 2007 graduate of the University of Puget Sound. He is currently a Democracy Fellow at FairVote, a nonprofit election reform and voting rights organization based in Takoma Park, Maryland.