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Shiny new ballots: Record number of states eyeing ranked-choice voting

Twenty-two legislatures considered bills this year that would bring in a voting system where voters get more say on the ballot. Well, more chad punches, anyway.

(CN) — Last year, Alaska voted king crab the state’s No. 1 seafood over salmon, scallops and pollack.

What was unusual about this state-sponsored election was not just the candidates, but the process. It was the first time Alaskans used a ranked-choice ballot since they voted to adopt the electoral reform in 2020.

Unlike the system predominately used in the U.S., which awards the election to whoever gets the most votes, ranked-choice winners must get more than 50% of the vote. That number is tallied up as candidates who receive the least votes get swapped for voters' second-choice vote.

“In politics, we only have two parties that fell out of competition,” said Jason Grenn, executive director of Alaskans for Better Elections. “So there's no drive towards wanting to talk to all voters. There's no drive to talk towards new ideas or new incentives, and this system changes that.”

Grenn served one term in the statehouse as an independent. Even though Alaska last chose an independent governor in 2014, Grenn found running as a third-party candidate challenging.

“When I ran as an independent, one of the hardest things to do was convince people that they wouldn't waste their vote by voting for an independent,” Grenn recalled. Because Republicans and Democrats dominate most elections, many voters worry that choosing a third option discounts their vote.

In August, Alaska will put the seafood training to the test in the first ranked-choice election. The Last Frontier state may be the most recent to adopt the reform, but it’s unlikely to be the last. On top of 50 jurisdictions using ranked-choice voting nationwide, 22 legislatures considered bills that would create, expand or support the system this year.

“When you look at polls and people's dissatisfaction with Washington and Congress, you would say, well that must be a climate for a third party or independent,” said Rob Richie, president and CEO of FairVote, a nonpartisan organization advocating for election reform.

Richie joined the organization in 1992, when presidential candidate Ross Perot won 18% of the popular vote running as an independent. Perot remains the only candidate to make this big of a dent in the bipartisan system since 1912.

Richie said would-be third-party candidates often get pressured out of the race, like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in 2016 and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz in 2020. Both were told they would take votes away from the Democratic candidate and give the election to the Republican nominee.

By eliminating these lost votes, a FairVote analysis of California elections suggested ranked-choice voting leads to a slight uptick in women and people of color running for office, groups most likely to be pressured out of running under the plurality system. Ranked-choice voting is used in six California cities, but not statewide.

“My background before seeking political office was as a volunteer on my neighborhood board. I had a professional career, but not a political career,” said Linea Palmisano, a Democrat serving her third term on the Minneapolis City Council. With a family to raise, Palmisano said, “ranked-choice voting was a friendlier way to be in a race when you don't have a political past or the political networking.”

Palmisano won her first election through the ranked-choice gamut and subsequent ones with an outright majority

“In a traditional election you can skip doors that have the other guy’s sign on it,” Palmisano said. Under ranked-choice, she said, “the strategy is to speak with everyone so when you walk into office, you feel the charge to be more representative of the collective voice instead of just the voice of your own supporters.”

Rather than reward a party or position, many say ranked-choice voting rewards civilizing behavior and coalition building — a claim supported by some studies and rejected by others.

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“The benefit that ranked-choice voting brings is that you can vote for any and all of the candidates you like and none of the candidates you don't,” said Spencer Reynolds, director of political partnerships at the Forward Party. “It allows Americans to have more voice in the political system.”

Founded by Andrew Yang after his 2020 bid for president, the Forward Party supports ranked-choice voting and open primaries, among other issues.

Reynolds said the change is a threat to the bipartisan system. Even though congressional approval ratings often remain below 30%, more than 90% of incumbents get reelected.

“How does that stack up?” Reynolds asked. “Over the last several decades, both parties have used the tools of power to ensure that as many races as possible are secure for either the Democrats or the Republicans. Without having any real need for a general election, everything gets decided in the primary.”

He added: “The whole virtue of ranked-choice voting is that it helps more accurately reflect what the voters actually want. If that ends up being supporting the duopoly and keeping the two-party system in place, so be it.”

Some oppose ranked-choice voting as being too complicated or babying voters incapable of making decisions. Harvey Mansfield, a professor of government at Harvard, criticized the system for promoting selfishness.

“I've seen it in practice here and it leads to more stalemate than innovation,” said Mansfield, who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where ranked-choice has reigned for 80 years.

“People think about their own first choice and not the common good,” Mansfield said. “You're encouraged to just start off by naming your number one view instead of looking around and saying, well my number one view also needs the support of the rest of the constituency, so I need to think about what other people want too.”

Mansfield argued partisan voting leads to electing the most compatible candidates, Democrats and Republicans, that appeal to the majority and not to party bases.

While more communities consider ranked-choice, it has also met opposition. Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot measure in 2020 proposing ranked-choice voting. In Utah this year, a bill that would have expanded the system from the city-level to multi-candidate primary and general elections crumbled under distrust from conservative activists.

“There's a lot of suspicion on any changes towards election laws ever since the whole 'Stop the Steal' movement that grew out of the 2020 presidential elections,” said Utah Representative Mike Winder, a Republican from West Valley City who introduced House Bill 178 in January. When the bill reached the House Government Operations Committee, “those committee members were being bombarded by activists who did not want to do anything different than what was always done.”

Winder pulled the measure but wants to reintroduce it in a future session, once people get used to ranked-choice voting in local elections.

“Fifteen years ago, people in Utah were very nervous about vote by mail. Now people get very upset if you even talk about removing vote by mail, because that's just how people are used to voting now,” he explained. “Ranked-choice voting will be the same way once people experience it.”

While ranked-choice voting has been offered as a salve to the country’s plague of polarization and political extremes, some caution that one ballot reform can’t fix it all.

“I don't know if it's the antidote, but I think it's part of a healthy diet,” said Dan Justesen, a voter and brewery owner in Minneapolis, where ranked-choice has been used since 2009.

“If you're not going to vote for me, I at least want to be your second vote,” Justesen said. “As a voter, you’re more respected.”

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