Ranked-choice voting suffers red state backlash

Five states have banned ranked-choice voting in just the last two months.
FILE – Brochures are displayed at the Alaska Division of Elections office on Jan. 21, 2022 in Anchorage, Alaska, detailing changes to elections this year. Alaska’s races will unfold in the overhauled ranked-choice system. The system had its inaugural election this summer when Democrat Mary Peltola made history by becoming the first Alaska Native to serve in the House and the first woman to win Alaska’s sole congressional seat. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen, File)

Lawmakers in several red states have led a charge against ranked-choice voting in recent months, winning passage of new laws that prohibit localities from using the form of instant-runoff voting in elections at all levels.

In just the past two months, five states — Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma — have enacted laws banning ranked-choice voting, which its detractors call confusing and nontraditional.

Ranked-choice allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. Under the system, a candidate wins outright if they receive a majority of the first-place votes. 

Otherwise, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and voters who chose that candidate have their votes redistributed to the candidate they ranked second on their ballots. The process continues until a candidate has secured a majority of the vote.

Only two states, Alaska and Maine, currently use the process for federal and statewide elections. But initiatives set for the ballot in Nevada and Oregon — and potentially in Colorado and Idaho — could double the list.

Alaska has a nonpartisan primary that sends the top four to the general election. Nevada voters will be asked this year whether they approve of a system that would send the top five finishers to the general election, where voters would then be able to rank them.

More than 50 cities use ranked-choice — or have approved it and are moving toward using it, according to FairVote, a nonpartisan proponent of ranked-choice voting.

But Republicans, stung by losses in U.S. House races in 2018 and 2022 in Maine and Alaska under ranked-choice systems, have turned against it.

“Election Day is there for a reason, and winners are chosen on Election Day,” Kentucky Sen. Phillip Wheeler (R) said before voting for a bill banning the process, according to the Kentucky Lantern.

“You vote for the candidate, and the candidate with the most votes should win. We shouldn’t be picking a second, third or fourth option,” Wheeler said. “That is the process and that’s the way the process has always been done. That’s the way the process needs to stay.”

In Alaska in 2022, U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola (D) finished the first round of ranked-choice voting with 48.8% of the first-choice votes, just behind the number of first-place votes won by the two Republican candidates in the race, former Gov. Sarah Palin (R) and Nick Begich III (R). Peltola won outright in the third round of counting, with 55% of the vote.

In Maine in 2018, then-U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R) received more first-place votes than his challenger, state Rep. Jared Golden (D). But Golden won more second-place votes from supporters of two independent candidates, carrying the final tally by just 3,500 votes.

The Republican revolt against ranked-choice voting was already underway. Legislators in Florida, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota and Tennessee voted before this year to ban localities from implementing ranked-choice voting.

Another state, Missouri, could be next to pass a ban, after legislators last month gave final approval to a resolution on which voters must sign off in November.

“We believe in the one person, one vote system of elections that our country was founded upon,” Missouri Sen. Ben Brown (R), the resolution’s sponsor, told KCUR.

Supporters of ranked-choice voting say the backlash comes as a reaction to their progress in establishing the new system across the country.

“These attempts to stop RCV are a reaction to the movement’s success. RCV has won 27 city ballot measures in a row, it’s on track to appear on the ballot in 5 states this November, and firm majorities of voters who have used RCV support it — that includes conservatives,” said Deb Otis, director of research and policy at FairVote.

Otis pointed to Virginia, where state Republicans used ranked-choice voting to nominate Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) in 2021. Military voters in six Southern states have used ranked-choice voting for decades, Otis said.

But Republicans are not alone in their discomfort with ranked-choice voting. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) this month signed an omnibus elections bill, backed by the legislature’s Democratic majority, that would erect substantial barriers to ranked-choice voting across the state.

That bill would require 12 Colorado counties of varying sizes and demographic breakdowns to test ranked-choice voting before the state as a whole adopts it.

Skeptics of ranked-choice voting also include minority and immigrant groups, who raise concerns that voters with limited English proficiency might find the system difficult to understand.

The Colorado provision “was worked out with several of our [county] clerks to ensure that as new voting methods are implemented in different types of elections we have a good amount of data to analyze to ensure we’re not undermining Coloradans’ confidence in our elections and that voters understand their ballots,” state Rep. Emily Sirota (D), the provision’s lead sponsor, told colleagues.

The measure passed in less than a minute.