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News / Opinion / Columns

Donnelly: Ranked choice voting would burden voters

By Ann Donnelly
Published: March 2, 2024, 6:01am

Washington’s Legislature will not approve ranked choice voting this year. For voters, that is good news. The unsettling news is that this voting method is likely to be re-introduced and may eventually prevail if voters and legislators do not understand its burdensome process. Ultimately, the courts may quietly force it on our state.

Ranked choice voting, in which a voter ranks the candidates listed on the ballot rather than selecting a single choice, has been approved by voters in 53 U.S. cities over the past several decades. Computerized iterations of the voting results then determine the winner.

Eighteen states have it in some locations, including Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado, Illinois and New York. Seattle adopted it in November 2022.

Florida, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota and Tennessee have adopted laws prohibiting ranked choice voting. In Utah and Alaska, bills are advancing to repeal it.

House Bill 2250, this year’s effort, was sponsored by 22 representatives, all Democrats (including Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver). It passed its first committee vote on party lines. The companion Senate Bill 6156 did not pass out of committee, ending the effort for the year.

Secretary of State Steve Hobbs wisely opposed this year’s measure.

If passed, such legislation would have approved a statewide ranked choice voting option for counties, cities, towns, school districts, and fire and port districts. It would set up a state work group to implement the new process for local governments. The effort would then move to the local venues for discussion.

County auditors could be faced with both ranked choice and traditional voting for state and local races in the same election.

Ranked choice voting proponents Kamau Chege and Kenia Peregrino contend that the courts will eventually force the method on the state: “House Bill 2250 is … created in response to the Washington State Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the Washington Voting Rights Act. … That decision made it clear that RCV … is coming to Washington whether or not the legislature passes HB 2250.”

A chilling prognosis indeed. If imposed on Washington, ranked choice voting will be expensive to implement and burdensome on voters, especially those who lack the resources to independently evaluate and research multiple candidates and arrange them in their preferred order. A voter may need double or triple the amount of time to make an informed ranking in multiple races on a given ballot.

This will hardly benefit voters with disabilities or language challenges, or those unable to take time to research all the candidates.

In 2022 — prior to Alaska’s congressional election, the state’s first using ranked choice voting — I strategized with two Anchorage-based Republicans identifying the ranking sequence most likely to elect a Republican. It was ultimately unsuccessful.

In that Republican-leaning state, the sole major Democrat in the race was elected, despite receiving just 39.66 percent of the first-round votes. The two Republicans totaled 58.76 percent in the first round.

Ranked choice voting empowered Democrats to flip a traditionally Republican Alaska, where a Republican had served in Congress for the six previous decades, by exploiting the presence on the ballot of two evenly divided Republicans.

Despite being billed as voter friendly, ranked choice voting features a grim outcome termed “ballot exhaustion” — the elimination of ballots that do not include the two eventual finalists (after potentially numerous rounds of computation). Such disenfranchisement creates an artificial majority for the winner.