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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Clark County voters to have say on ranked-choice voting

Measure is likely to garner high interest on November ballot

By Shari Phiel, Columbian staff writer
Published: August 21, 2022, 6:04am

When voters open their ballots for the November general election, they will face no less than six charter amendment measures. The measures range from changing the initiative and referendum process to adding a new section to the charter on county council vacancies. The measure likely to be of most interest is the introduction of ranked- choice voting.

Terri Niles said the Clark County Charter Review Commission, which has since disbanded, decided to put the measure on the ballot based on voter interest. If the measure passes, it would apply to the 11 nonpartisan county offices: treasurer, auditor, clerk, assessor, sheriff, prosecuting attorney and five county council seats.

“Believe it or not, ranked-choice voting was the one issue that people showed up at meetings and advocated for the charter review commission to consider putting on the ballot,” Niles said.

Niles admits that describing how ranked-choice voting works can make it sound more difficult than it is. Unlike traditional ballots where voters pick one candidate for each office, ranked-choice voting lets voters rank candidates by preference, i.e. first, second, third, etc. If more than 50 percent of voters pick a single candidate as their first choice, then the candidate wins.

If no candidate claims a majority, the person who got the least number of first-choice votes is eliminated. For the voters who favored the lowest-earning candidate, their votes go to their second choices.

If the redistribution, also called a round, is enough to get a single candidate over the 50 percent threshold, then that candidate wins. If not, then the process repeats itself as many times as needed to find the winner.

Niles said a “Charter Yes” committee has been formed and will be attending community and neighborhood events to help educate voters about all of the charter amendment measures on the November ballot.

“FairVote Washington is going to be our resource, our ‘go to person’ for people to reach out to,” Niles added.

A nonpartisan nonprofit based in Bothell, FairVote Washington focuses on election reforms. Director Lisa Ayrault said the effort to educate voters has been ongoing for at least five years, and interest in ranked-choice voting is on the rise.

“Ranked-choice voting is the fastest-growing nonpartisan voting reform in the country. It’s being adopted all over the place,” Ayrault said.

According to the organization, ranked-choice voting already is being used in Alaska and Maine and in 55 cities across the country, including San Francisco, New York, Minneapolis and Santa Fe, N.M. The Vancouver City Council has approved the use of ranked-choice voting for local elections but has not implemented it.

In the Pacific Northwest, Ayrault said, an Oregon judge on Monday ruled to allow ranked-choice voting to appear on the November ballot in Portland, a charter amendment measure similar to Clark County’s will be on the ballot in San Juan County and another measure will be on the ballot in Seattle.

The benefit of ranked-choice voting, Ayrault said, is that “you get to rank your choices on the ballot. … That way, if your first choice doesn’t have enough support to win, then your vote isn’t wasted. It counts for your backup choice.”

Ayrault said people rank things in order of preference all of the time, including what movie to watch, what to eat for dinner or what to do on the weekend, and that ranked-choice voting is just as easy. She also said many voters have been given incorrect or inaccurate information about ranked-choice voting.

“They say things like, ‘That’s the voting method that gives some people more votes than other people’ … or ‘That’s the voting method that’s impossible to count. It takes forever, weeks and weeks to get results.’ There’s a lot of misinformation swirling around,” she said.

Ayrault said that even if the ballot measure passes, voters won’t have to rank candidates; they will still have the option of picking a single candidate.

Proponents contend that a ranked-choice system would eliminate the need for primary elections and could boost voter turnout, especially among voters who don’t favor either of the top two candidates but still want their votes to matter.

However, opponents —including the Clark County Republican Party — argue that the process is too difficult, would be expensive to implement and takes longer to get election results, especially in the case of a recount. At its July meeting, the Clark County Republican Party’s executive board unanimously voted to oppose the ballot measure.

“With a little research, the many problems with ranked choice voting become obvious,” Chair Joel Mattila said in a press release.

Tom Tangen, chair for the 17th Legislative District, said, “The average voter needs to know that ranked-choice voting increases the cost of an election, will add a number of days, possibly over a week, to learn the winner of some races, and in its complexity would create more concern as to the integrity of our election process.”

Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey said new software would need to be installed on the county’s system to process the new ballots. He said it is his understanding the software, called RCTab, would be available at no cost to the county and would easily integrate with the county’s existing system, which is provided by Hart InterCivic of Austin, Texas.

“We don’t envision it being a huge typological challenge to use a system that’s been certified by Hart InterCivic that would then incorporate the (ranked-choice voting) tabulation functionality,” Kimsey said.

Once the software is installed, he said, the county system would have to be certified by the secretary of state’s office, which is required to certify all ballot-counting systems in the state before they can be used.

Kimsey said getting election results could take longer in some circumstances.

“The initial tabulation will take no longer than it currently takes. If there are subsequent rounds, that would take additional time,” he said.

Without seeing how the system works or having ballots to process, Kimsey said, it was too soon to estimate how much additional time would be required.

Races that result in a recount would take longer to finalize, too.

“In Clark County, if a recount is required, we conduct that manually. When the results between the apparent winner and the apparent second-place candidate is within 2,000 votes and one-half of 1 percent, then a recount is required, and we do that as a manual recount,” he said.

With ranked-choice voting, he said, the rounds would have to be done manually, which would be more labor intensive.

County elections staff will have plenty of time to get up to speed. If the measure passes, it won’t go into effect until 2026. Niles said the charter review commission’s ranked-choice voting committee and county elections staff agreed to 2026 to ensure the new system wouldn’t be rolled out during a presidential election year.

For more information about ranked-choice voting and FairVote Washington, go to FairVoteWa.org.

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