RCV Gains Ground
Ranked Choice Voting makes legislative and media inroads
Ballots will appear in mailboxes late this week in Washington State for the August 3 Primary election for many local offices. The two top vote getters for each office will advance to the general election in November. Primary elections (especially in mid summer) are often plagued by low voter interest. Low ballot return may result in advancing candidates to the November general election with the support of an enthusiastic minority but unacceptable to an unmotivated majority. Consider, for example, a field of five candidates from whom a given voter is allowed to cast just one vote. As an extreme example, the two top vote getters could each receive, say, only 21 percent of the vote, propelled by a devoted extremist following. How about a system that demands that the advancing candidates have wider support?
Ranked choice voting (RCV) offers that alternative. Depending on the particulars of enabling legislation, RCV would require to have some support from a minimum of fifty percent of the participating voters. One method would winnow the candidates down to five in a conventional primary (if there were more than five contenders) and use RCV in a general election. With RCV the voter casts votes in order of preference for as many candidates as the voter finds palatable. If one candidate receives 50% or more of the votes among the first choice votes, that candidate wins. But, in a field of candidates in which no candidate garners 50 percent, second choice support is considered: the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated and the second choice votes on those ballots are distributed among the remaining candidates. That process is repeated in additional rounds until one of the candidates demonstrates some support from 50% of the voters.
Recently the New York City mayoral and city council races were conducted using ranked choice voting and gained favorable media attention from both conservative and liberal outlets. For example:
In this NYC case of RCV we are looking at a Democratic Primary result that is also the presumptive result of the November general election. (NYC highly favors Democratic candidates in the general election.)
New York City is pretty far off, so what does this NYC coverage have to do with us in Washington State? The King County Council will soon vote on placing ranked choice voting on the November ballot for the voters to consider adopting. King County government, which includes Seattle, operates under a home rule charter (unlike thirty-two of the other thirty-eight Washington counties). Under that charter King County can choose to modify its voting pattern on its own. Thirty-two of the other thirty-eight counties in Washington State are “non-charter” counties (including Spokane County). Non-charter counties operate under the State Constitution (Article XI, Section 5) and the laws passed by the legislature that make up the Revised Code of Washington, instead of “home rule.” For any of these counties or their municipal governments in the state to make a change to RCV first requires the legislature to change the Revised Code to allow it. A bill to make that change narrowly missed advancing to a vote in the Washington State legislature this last session—and may well be considered in the upcoming session.
Ranked choice voting is catching on. The State of Maine went to statewide RCV in 2020 through a multi-step process that stretched over several years. Alaska goes to statewide RCV in 2022 in response to statewide ballot measure 2 passed in 2020. A wikipedia article, Ranked Choice Voting in the United States, details the growth of RCV. The article describes the duration and complexity of efforts necessary to institute positive change in our democratic system—and it suggests, that, as with other movements (like final adoption of women’s suffrage, for example), ranked choice voting is reaching a tipping point.
Educate yourself. Check out Fairvotewa.org. Talk over RCV with friends and acquaintances. This is one of many steps that will help the people take back democracy.
Keep to the high ground,