Alternative voting on ballot in swing state, big cities

Support for alternative voting methods will be tested across the country in November as voters in major cities and a key swing state decide whether to change the way they elect leaders.
Voting Season: Lawn signs pave the sidewalk leading to a polling place / Photo credit: Sean McMenemy

Support for alternative voting methods will be tested across the country in November as voters in major cities and a key swing state decide whether to change the way they elect leaders.

Ranked-choice voting, currently used in two states, will be on the ballot in six cities and three counties. In one of those cities, Seattle, voters will face a two-tiered choice: First, whether they want to change the current primary system that advances the two top finishers in the primary election to a general, and then whether they want to adopt a ranked-choice system or one known as approval voting.

Nevada’s electoral system is the largest prize on the map. Silver State voters will have the chance to establish a voting system in which the top five finalists in an all-party primary election advance to the general. That general election would be conducted using ranked-choice voting, for everything from congressional seats and the governor’s office to state legislative seats.

Ranked-choice voting allows voters to choose a favorite candidate, followed by a second, third and fourth candidate. If their first choice finishes last, that candidate is eliminated and his or her votes are reallocated to their voters’ second choice. The process continues until one candidate claims more than half the vote.

Supporters of ranked-choice voting say it encourages candidates to appeal to the entire electorate, beyond a traditional political base.

“This gives power to the voters to elect candidates who have the broadest support. Regardless of the ideology in a given city or state, that has a lot of appeal,” said Deb Otis, director of research at FairVote, a group that backs ranked-choice voting. “Ranking is pretty intuitive for people. If you ask a 5 year old for their favorite super heroes, they’ll tell you their top three, their top five, or maybe their top ten.”

Proponents of approval voting say their system is easy to grasp: Voters are allowed to vote for, or approve of, as many candidates as they like. The two candidates who receive the highest number of approvals would advance to a general election showdown.

“It’s simple. It’s representative. It’s so easy that people can actually explain how tabulation works,” said Troy Davis, one of the leaders of Seattle Approves, which collected signatures to place approval voting on November’s ballot. “Our starting point was, what would it take to make Seattle’s elections the best in the country?”

Along with Seattle, voters in Portland, Ore.; Portland, Maine; Evanston, Ill.; Fort Collins, Colo.; and Ojai, Calif., will all decide whether to adopt ranked-choice voting. Multnomah County, Ore., the home of Portland, and Clark and San Juan counties in Washington will also consider the change.

Supporters point to several conservative jurisdictions that have adopted ranked-choice systems, including 23 cities and towns in deep red Utah. Republicans in Virginia used ranked-choice voting to nominate a congressional candidate in a competitive district this year.

“It’s a pretty politically and geographically diverse set of places that have adopted it,” said Todd Donovan, a political scientist at Western Washington University who studies ranked-choice voting.

The practice, currently used by Maine and Alaska, has generated opposition from some Republicans after Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) ousted a GOP incumbent in 2018, and last month when Rep. Mary Peltola (D-Alaska) won a special election to replace the late Rep. Don Young (R) on the strength of second-place votes.

Criticism has also come from the left. In Nevada, a group opposing the proposed constitutional amendment includes advocates for minority voting rights who fear the new system could disenfranchise communities that are already difficult to turn out in an election.

“A lot of our membership groups had community members who were very confused around the process,” said Emily Persaud-Zamora, executive director of Silver State Voices, a voter protection group that opposes the amendment. “We’re talking about having to translate materials into so many different languages to really be able to connect to a community, and we’re not really confident that this is something that would make a lot of these communities comfortable. We’re talking about people that come from countries originally that don’t have a healthy relationship with democracy.”

Ranked victories

Ranked-choice voting advocates scored their biggest victory in New York City, after voters approved the new method in a 2019 ballot measure. Exit polls conducted after the 2021 mayoral election showed huge majorities of voters liked the new system after city officials ran a multi-million dollar education campaign, Donovan said — even if one of the most prominent opponents of ranked-choice voting was the man who won both the Democratic primary and the general election, Mayor Eric Adams.

In most instances in which ranked-choice voting has appeared on the ballot, voters have given their approval. But supporters have not convinced everyone: Massachusetts voters rejected a proposal to implement ranked choice voting for federal offices in 2020 by a 55%-45% margin.

Supporters of alternative voting methods say the system encourages more candidates to run, free of the fear that they will play spoiler against better-known or -funded opponents. Otis, of FairVote, said minority voters are likely to rank more candidates than white voters, and that ranked-choice voting improves representation for women and minorities.

The academic research has yet to prove that point, Donovan said. It remains an area that minority voting rights activists like Persaud-Zamora in Nevada are watching closely.

“Any policy that could potentially affect any candidates of color is always a concern,” Persaud-Zamora said.