If you have ever gone to the store to pick up a loaf of bread (or a six-pack of soda or a candy bar) and they are out of your favorite brand, then you understand how ranked-choice voting works. You might not get your first choice, but the alternative isn’t bad.
At least, that is how proponents sell the idea of ranked-choice voting, which continues to gain support across the country. A recent story in The Columbian looked at the prospect of such an election system in Clark County, and while the idea is intriguing, many of its benefits are rendered obsolete by Washington’s top-two primary system.
In ranked-choice voting — also known as the instant runoff system — voters rank the candidates according to their preference for each person on the ballot. The first-place votes are tallied, and if no candidate receives a majority of the votes, the counting continues. The low vote-getter is eliminated, and people who voted for that person have their second choice counted. This continues until a majority is achieved.
In last month’s midterm, the system played a role in Maine’s selection of a congressional representative. One candidate held the lead after the initial count in the four-person race with 46 percent of the vote. But because he did not have a majority, the counting continued and ultimately swung the election in another direction. “Other state reform efforts have watched the Maine innovation with great hope and interest, and now they’re seeing it actually implemented,” Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University told the Portland (Maine) Press Herald. “I think we will look back on Maine’s adoption of this initiative as a real watershed in the history of present-day electoral reform in the United States.”
Advocates say the system improves voter engagement and leads to a more satisfying outcome for many citizens. “It makes your vote matter,” Battle Ground resident Melanie Davis told The Columbian. It also makes it more difficult for extremists on either end of the political spectrum to win office; they might receive a plurality of votes from ardent supporters, but if too many voters find them to be a poor choice, the candidates’ chances are diminished.
Notably, Vancouver residents in the past have supported ranked-choice voting. In 1999, 53 percent of voters approved the possibility of an instant runoff system for city government, but did not require it. Six years later, the Legislature — led by then-Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver — finally cleared the way for Vancouver to implement the process if city officials so desired.
That allowance closed without the system being tried in the city, and Washington later established a top-two primary system after much legal wrangling. The top-two primary reduces the field to two candidates for the general election, regardless of party. Some critics believe this is biased against third-party candidates, who have difficulty advancing out of the primary. While that argument has some validity, we believe it provides a more equitable and simple process than possibly having three or four candidates on the ballot for the general election.
That being said, we are open to new ideas. America’s democratic system is being undermined by voter apathy — at least until this year’s midterms — and it is essential that proven methods for increasing engagement be adopted. If voters elsewhere are invigorated by ranked-choice voting, it is worth considering in Washington.
Who knows? It might be the best thing since sliced bread.