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News / Politics / Election

Clark County proponents say ‘yea’ to ranked-choice voting

Fans say system less divisive; critics cite potential for confusion

By Dee Anne Finken, for The Columbian
Published: December 2, 2018, 6:02am

With the general election behind us, there is renewed support for changing the way we vote in Clark County and beyond with a system proponents say would allow voters to mark their ballots without having to hold their noses.

Proponents of ranked-choice voting — one of a handful of alternates to our present system — say the option would go a long way in boosting voter turnout. Despite this November’s anomaly, when nearly 70 percent of eligible voters in Clark County cast ballots, voter turnout remains a significant concern, particularly in midterm elections, where commonly one of out every two eligible voters turns out locally.

“It makes your vote matter,” Battle Ground resident Melanie Davis said of ranked-choice voting, which she has embraced since her teenage son introduced her to concept three years ago with a YouTube video.

Unlike the current system, which election officials commonly refer to by using a horse-racing term, “first-past-the-post,” voters in elections employing ranked choices don’t cast a single vote resulting in the person garnering the most votes being declared winner.

Rather, with ranked choices, voters indicate their first, second, third and so-on preferences for candidates vying for a single office. Then, if no one candidate receives a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and the subsequent second choices of the ousted candidate’s supporters are redistributed among the remaining candidates.

The redistribution process continues until one candidate secures a clear margin.

The result, proponents say, is the candidate with the most widespread support wins, which, in turn, results in a truer representative democracy.

Davis said one reason for her support for ranked-choice voting is the “winner-take-all” approach is divisive and discouraging.

Under the present system, Davis said, voters too often are left feeling disenfranchised if their candidate doesn’t win, particularly if big money fuels a campaign.

Additionally, proponents of ranking say candidates are less likely to engage in ugly or negative campaigning if they know they have a chance at being a voter’s second or even third choice.

Although the application of ranked-choice voting would be a first in Clark County, it’s not a novel idea — or practice — in pockets and broader regions elsewhere in the country. That includes Maine, where voters in November elected a U.S. senator and two congressional representatives using ranked-choice voting.

Opposing arguments

Opposition to ranked-choice voting does exist, largely over concerns about election security and voting snafus elsewhere. Plus there’s the worry that it might not be the panacea supporters make it out to be.

Voter confusion, in fact, was among the reasons cited two years by California Gov. Jerry Brown when he vetoed a bill that would have made ranked-choice voting an option throughout the state. He said voting confusion would have likely hindered turnout rather than boosted it.

San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro, however, have held successful elections using ranked-choice voting. California permits the practice in those communities because of their designation as charter-law cities.

If current efforts succeed in making ranked-choice voting a reality in Washington, it wouldn’t be the first time voters had a chance to experiment with it.

In 2006, Pierce County voters approved its use to elect county officials. But after two elections residents repealed the legislation. Opinions vary about the reasons behind the reversal, ranging from dislike of the practice by political party operatives who didn’t appreciate losing their clout, to cost and to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the state’s top two primary system.

In 2005, former state Rep. Jim Moeller was behind legislation that allowed local jurisdictions to set up pilot programs to test ranked-choice voting, but no funds were made available and the legislation expired.

In Washington, one of the key developments in the current effort to bring about ranked-choice voting was the November hiring of a full-time lobbyist by one of the four main nonprofits that support alternate voting.

“This is about increasing voter turnout and helping people who are not currently engaged feel like they have a voice,” said Michael Martin, a Vancouver resident tapped for the job by FairVote Washington.

Martin, who previously worked in land-use and transportation planning for the Port of Portland, said his initial focus as a lobbyist will be two-pronged.

“We’ll be working first with county auditors to deal with technical challenges and, then, with FairVote being a nonpartisan group, it’s important to have broad, bipartisan support,” he said.

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Martin said technical concerns deal with feedback his group collected after a ranked-choice voting bill introduced last year by Rep. Zachary Hudgins, D-Tukwila, did not make it out of committee. Among those issues is the capability of voting equipment counties use to track and tally ballots.

Hudgins, who chairs the state Government, Elections & Information Technology Committee, said he is unsure if he will reintroduce the bill when the new Legislature convenes in January, mostly because he has other commitments on his plate. Nonetheless, he said he believes some version of the bill will be back in the 2019 session.

“I’m open to the idea of ranked-choice,” Hudgins said in an interview shortly before Thanksgiving. “I can see both sides of the issue and I introduced the bill because sometimes people think the process locks them out.”

Republican Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey agrees that a discussion of ranked-choice voting will surface locally before too long. For one, he’s heard from and met with members of FairVote, the League of Women Voters of Clark County, the Vancouver chapter of Represent Us and Fix Democracy Now to discuss the issue. Additionally, he anticipates alternate voting will be on the agenda when the Clark County Charter is reviewed in 2020.

As the county’s chief elections official, Kimsey said he understands interest and support for ranked-choice voting.”For one, people look at election results and they don’t like the outcome and they think a different system might be more representative of the entire population,” he said.

“And some people believe ranked-choice voting is a better reflection of the will of the voters,” said Kimsey, who declined to label the voting plan and other alternates as good or bad.

Having a bigger say

Ranked-choice voting supporters say one of the key pluses is that voters might still feel like they have a say in the process if their second- or even third-level choices win.

That idea is among the reasons the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Washington supports the pursuit of alternative voting systems, including the ranked-choice option.

Kathy Sakahara, democracy issue chair for the state League, said a two-year study the nonpartisan group took on in 2000 “showed our current method does not elect legislative bodies that are representative of our populace.”

Consequently, Sakahara said, too many citizens don’t feel empowered, which in turn leads to dwindling voter participation, which she termed a “very real threat to democracy.”

Sakahara, however, acknowledged there are downsides to the alternative approaches.

“Arguably it is a bit more complicated to process ballots,” she said. “The current software that most counties use will not tabulate ranked-choice voting or instant run-off voting. I will say that, in general, I don’t think auditors are really thrilled with the idea.”

Karen Hengerer, a member of the League of Women Voters of Clark County, has coordinated and trained election observers for the league and the Clark County Democratic Central Committee for nearly the past five years. Although her perspective isn’t the official league position, she said she has serious concerns about the alternate approach, including worries about adequate vote tabulation equipment and how a more complex ballot, in which voters are asked to mark their preferences in order, might be confusing.

Cindy Black, executive director of Fix Democracy First, says ranking candidates isn’t all that different from other times people reach decisions by expressing their preferences.”We rank things in daily life all of the time,” said Black, “Like with which movies we want to see, where we want to go to eat.”

The potential for confusion for voters isn’t lost on Nicole Laurent, a mental health counselor by profession who is the volunteer leader of the Vancouver chapter of Represent Us. She said her organization is focused on educating people about the process, but they intend to make that learning fun.

One idea is to host “drink-choice” events at pubs where people see the concept in action when they order a flight or sampling of beers or wines and then report their preferences on social media.

“We see a lot of momentum for ranked-choice voting and we are moving forward with building on that momentum,” Laurent added.

If proponents don’t succeed in making the alternative approach a reality, they don’t appear likely to give up easily, at least if the sentiments of Sakahara of the state League prevail.

The push for a change in voting systems will remain, she said, just as the desire for change did among proponents of marriage equality in Washington. Those activists introduced legislation some 30 times before the House of Representatives and Senate approved same-sex marriage in 2012, Sakahara said.