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Sunday, February 25, 2024
Feb. 25, 2024

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Houghton and Otis: Ranked choice voting won


In the wake of the 2023 elections, the bulk of media coverage and analysis has understandably focused on whether Democrats or Republicans have more momentum going into 2024. But there’s no question that Election Day 2023 gave momentum to the fastest-growing nonpartisan voting reform in the nation: ranked choice voting.

On Nov. 7, 11 cities across six states used ranked choice voting in their elections, including Boulder, Colo., which used ranked choice for the first time to elect a mayor. Ten more cities — including Salt Lake City — were using it when Utah held its elections on Nov. 21.

More voters want to join them. Three cities in Michigan voted to adopt ranked choice for the first time, while Minnetonka, Minn., and Easthampton, Mass., voted to keep or expand it. With these victories, ranked choice has won 27 city ballot measures in a row.

This is a massive change from just seven years ago, when only 10 cities used ranked choice. Now, 51 places use it, home to roughly 16 million Americans. That includes two states (Alaska and Maine) and 49 counties and states, with more states and cities — including Oregon, Nevada and the District of Columbia — slated to vote on its use next year.

Poll after poll tells us that Americans see our current politics as toxic, divisive and unresponsive to voters. An Associated Press poll this summer told us that just one in 10 Americans feel our democracy is working very well. A Pew Research study this September found a staggering 63 percent have little to no confidence in the future of the U.S. political system.

Compare that with ranked choice voting, which tackles these problems and is popular everywhere it’s used.

Here’s how it works: In races with more than two candidates, voters are asked to rank the candidates in order of preference — first choice, second choice, and so on. If no candidate earns more than 50 percent of first choices, an “instant runoff” occurs. If your favorite candidate is eliminated, your vote counts for your highest-ranked choice who has a chance to win.

Ranked choice can change our politics by giving voters better choices, better representation and more positive campaigns. Voters are able to express their true preferences, without playing “spoiler” or “wasting” their vote on a candidate who can’t win. At the same time, candidates are forced to appeal to a broad coalition of voters — even those who rank another candidate No. 1 — to build the majority they need to win.

The movement for ranked choice is both bottom-up and top-down — citizens and local legislators are winning city by city, showing that change is possible amid gridlock. At the same time, pro-ranked choice voting efforts are moving in Congress. Last month, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet introduced the Voter Choice Act, which would provide funding for cities, counties and states to implement ranked choice.

Yet Election Day 2023 didn’t just show that voters want ranked choice voting; it also demonstrated how ranked choice voting can deliver better campaigns and more representative and responsive governance.

Look at Boulder and Portland, Maine’s hotly contested mayoral elections. In Portland, two losing candidates swiftly congratulated the winner with each calling the race “amazing”; the mayor-elect praised a “civil” campaign that’s “what this city deserves.” In Boulder’s first use of ranked choice voting, the two leading candidates drew clear policy distinctions, but the losing candidate quickly conceded and said that “the city’s in great shape” under his opponent’s leadership.

Ranked choice voting doesn’t favor one demographic or ideological group — but by lowering the barrier to entry for underrepresented candidates, it gets us closer to elected bodies that look like the people they serve.

Ashley Houghton is the vice president of programs and policy at FairVote, a nonpartisan organization seeking better elections. Deb Otis is the director of research and policy at FairVote.