At a time when American elections are especially polarized and when turnout is at disturbingly low levels, it is sensible to consider changes to how voters choose elected officials.
That brings us to the prospect of ranked-choice voting. The Community Task Force on Council Representation, a group convened last year by the Vancouver City Council, is taking a fresh look at ranked-choice voting for the selection of council members.
With a ranked-choice system, voters mark their ballots not only for their first choice, but also indicate their second and third choices — and perhaps a fourth and fifth, depending upon how the system is configured. The idea is that if a voter’s first choice receives little support in the election, their vote will move down to a second choice or beyond.
Proponents say the system helps to reduce the enmity that infects modern politics. As The New York Times wrote last week: “With ranked choice, voters can support outsider candidates without worrying about wasting their ballots. And candidates can win only with support — or at least tolerance — from a majority of the electorate, which can help prevent polarization.”
Washington’s election system, with only two candidates advancing to the general election in each race, already avoids that problem. In other states, where minor-party candidates can fracture the vote, general elections can be won with, say, 40 percent of the vote. Proponents say ranked-choice voting would eliminate the need for a primary in council races, but that would create additional problems.
Because of that, it is difficult to see the advantages of ranked-choice voting for the Vancouver City Council. In truth, such a system for a handful of races — while county, state and federal contests retained the current system — would only add confusion that is a turnoff for voters.
That assertion has been confirmed in Washington. In the late 1990s, Vancouver voters approved a ranked-choice voting system, but it was never implemented by the city council because of concerns about legal challenges from the state. In 2006, voters in Pierce County adopted ranked-choice voting; three years later, they repealed it. As state Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, told Crosscut last year: “From my point of view it was a disaster when Pierce County tried ranked-choice voting, and it was not well-designed.”
Two bills in the Legislature would open the door for municipalities to embrace ranked-choice voting. House Bill 1722 attracted 27 co-sponsors — including Democratic Reps. Monica Stonier and Sharon Wylie from Vancouver — but neither bill has made it out of committee. Meanwhile, the system has been adopted in several states throughout the country, and Maine employed it for the 2018 congressional elections.
While the negatives outweigh the positives of ranked-choice voting for the Vancouver City Council, there is room for improvement. Residents in east Vancouver typically are underrepresented on the council, as is the city’s growing minority population. That might simply be due to a lack of candidates from those constituencies; if that is the case it reflects poorly on a system that disenfranchises large swaths of the city.
Because of that, choosing at least some council members in district voting — rather than having all positions selected by citywide vote — would be a more effective manner for finding a representative council.
Improving that representation and better engaging with voters is important work for the task force. But it is difficult to see how ranked-choice voting would improve the process.