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Ranked Choice Voting Survived Its Biggest Election Season Yet

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Ranked Choice Voting Survived Its Biggest Election Season Yet
New York City Board of Elections member
A New York City Board of Elections staff member shows a ballot to a campaign observer during the mayoral ranked choice primary in June. Ranked choice voting is expanding nationally.
Mary Altaffer The Associated Press

Voters in a record number of cities cast their ballots this month by ranking a slate of candidates rather than choosing just one.

Ranked choice voting, lauded by advocates for avoiding costly runoffs and ensuring that winners in crowded races earn majority support, is steadily gaining steam nationally. This year, 32 cities in seven states used the voting method.

And voters in Broomfield, Colorado; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Westbrook, Maine, approved ballot initiatives that will move them to ranked choice voting. Nationwide, 50 jurisdictions, from conservative Utah to liberal San Francisco, now use ranked choice voting.

While most ranked choice elections went well, there were some growing pains in its implementation this year, including an error uploading results in one city and an unexpected tie vote in another.

And some local election officials said state laws need to be amended to make the ranked choice tabulation process run more efficiently.

In such elections, voters rank candidates by preference. If no candidate earns more than 50% of first-choice votes after the initial tabulation, an instant runoff process kicks in. The candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated; voters who had preferred that candidate have their second-choice pick counted. The process repeats until a candidate reaches the majority threshold. Counting all the ballots, runoffs included, takes just hours or even minutes, depending on the system.

Opponents of the voting method argue it is complicated and confuses voters, while proponents say it encourages more positive campaigning since candidates aim for a wider appeal. With ranked choice voting still in its early stages around the country, observers are paying close attention to key elections that may determine its future in the American voting process.

In New York City, which in June held the largest ranked choice election in U.S. history, human error caused an embarrassing, roughly 24-hour delay in preliminary results for the mayoral primary. The city’s Board of Elections failed to remove 135,000 test ballots from the ranked choice software before uploading the actual results, counting both tallies. The board had to remove results from its website before correcting the error.

Advocates for ranked choice voting insisted this delay had nothing to do with the voting process, but rather with the board. A day after the election, the board apologized for the “unacceptable” error and said it would add new review checks.

New York City mayoral candidate Maya Wiley
New York City mayoral candidate Maya Wiley
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New York City’s June mayoral primary will be the largest test for the voting method.

“Not to be dramatic, but it was quite devastating,” said Sarah Goff, deputy director for Common Cause New York, a nonprofit that advocated for the voting method. Still, she thinks the city won’t ditch ranked choice voting anytime soon.

New York City Mayor-elect Eric Adams, a Democrat, has been critical of the voting method, suggesting before the primary it might disenfranchise voters. Exit polls from Common Cause New York and Rank the Vote NYC showed 3 in 4 voters are eager to use the method in future elections.

Christina Henderson, an independent city councilmember in Washington, D.C., who was elected in 2020 with just 15% support among a field of 24 candidates, supports ranked choice voting. She waited until after the New York City primary to introduce legislation that would adopt the method for local elections in the District of Columbia.

“We need to have a conversation about whether our system to elect officials still serves the voters well,” she said. “I think that voters should be able to fully express their vote and their preferences, and right now the system doesn’t really allow us to do that.”

Her proposal, however, is opposed by the District’s Democratic Party, which has argued the system may dampen participation in less affluent areas of the city, where voters already tend to shy away from multi-candidate elections for at-large seats on the council. The party did not respond to a request for comment. Henderson, who thinks the party’s opposition is about holding onto power, said she is not sure her proposal has the support to pass.

For other communities, the challenge isn’t adopting ranked choice voting, but implementing it.

Early Days

On a brisk fall morning two days after Portland, Maine, voters cast ballots this month in a four-way city council race, City Clerk Katherine Jones stood on the steps outside City Hall with the two leading candidates. The frontrunners found themselves in a situation that’s likely never happened before: They were tied at the end of a ranked choice election, with 8,529 votes each.

Ranked choice voting is designed to prevent the need for tie-breaking schemes, but city officials had to resort to one. Reaching into an heirloom wooden bowl, Jones picked a slip of paper with the winner, Brandon Mazer. His opponent, Roberto Rodriguez, immediately asked for a hand recount of the ballots. The recount eventually gave Rodriguez a 35-vote advantage to win the race. Mazer conceded victory soon after.

“When I lost the draw, I was getting a bunch of emails and texts, patting me on the back,” Rodriguez said. “But I said, ‘No, no it’s not over.’”

Rodriguez said ranked choice voting worked as intended, and that he would still support the method if he had lost. Portland was the first city in Maine to adopt ranked choice voting, in 2011.

In Utah, 21 cities ran ranked choice elections this month, the most of any state. Local election officials in two of the counties that ran those elections said the process went relatively smoothly, with a few challenges.

It took Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen and her team several weeks to figure out how to design the complex ballots for her first ranked choice election.

Swensen’s office designed 79 different ballots across the 27 jurisdictions she serves around the capital city. In one mayoral race with eight candidates, the ranked choice section of the ballot took up the entire width of the page. Without a change to Utah’s ranked choice law, she worries a race with more candidates would have to be split between two pages, potentially putting some candidates at a disadvantage and costing the county more to print larger ballots.

Phil Martinez inserts his ballot into an official ballot drop box Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, in Salt Lake City.
Phil Martinez inserts his ballot into an official ballot drop box Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, in Salt Lake City.
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She testified at a meeting of the joint Political Subdivisions Interim Committee at the state Capitol last week on her experience and frustrations with ranked choice voting. In addition to calling for lawmakers to limit the number of candidates voters can rank, she told the committee that she worries about voters who may skip a ranking (for example, ranking first, second and fourth places but skipping third), which would nullify that voter’s ballot.

“If they’re going to continue down this path, they’re definitely going to have to fix some of these things,” she told Stateline.

Like most Utah county clerks, Swensen opposed ranked choice voting, but she respected the wishes of the nine cities in the county that wanted to use the method. She fears that the process is still confusing voters, but said the election was successful.

“Having gone through the process, voters are coming out on the other side, saying, ‘Hey, it’s great, we had a good experience,’” said Taylor Williams, chief deputy clerk for Utah County. “Ranked choice voting is here and it’s likely to stay here in the future.”

Utah County officials not only administered ranked choice elections for several local cities, but also ran one in Moab, nearly 200 miles south of the county. Utah law allows cities to contract with outside counties if their county is unwilling to administer a ranked choice election.

Williams thinks the method will continue to spread, as voters and officials in the fiscally conservative state see the cost-saving benefits of avoiding runoffs. Voter education will be key in that process, he said.

Overall, advocates for ranked choice voting argue the method is working well nationally, even with a few hiccups.

“We saw great things from election administrators,” said Deb Otis, a senior research analyst at Fair Vote, a nonprofit that advocates for ranked choice voting. “Almost all of them had never done ranked choice voting before, and it went really smoothly. We’re excited to see it keep expanding.”

But for some municipalities, it may take changes in state law to see that expansion.

Challenges with State Law

Election officials in Bloomington, Minnesota, successfully conducted their first ranked choice election this month, a year after voters approved the method through a ballot initiative. But 16 election judges had to hand count this election, sorting and resorting paper ballots for the city council races.

That’s because the state has yet to approve software that would automate the tabulation process, since the legislature has not set those standards for certification.

While that hurdle delayed results until the weekend after Election Day, it gave city officials a chance to show voters the tabulation process, which was open to the public in City Hall.

Local election officials spent the summer working on voter education through videos, social media and newsletters. They capped off outreach with a mock election, asking residents to rank their favorite city park or recreation facility.

“It definitely was a longer process, but I think it benefited our community for its first year,” said Christina M. Scipioni, Bloomington’s nonpartisan city clerk. “The more we have ranked choice voting out there and more people are familiar with it, it lessens the barriers and confusion on Election Day.”

For future elections, Scipioni will use a faster tabulation method developed by Minneapolis that uses digital spreadsheets instead of hand counts. Minnetonka, St. Louis Park and St. Paul also use ranked choice voting in the North Star State.

State law is holding back ranked choice voting in other places as well, including Ann Arbor, Michigan. Voters there won’t be able to use the ranked choice voting method they just approved until the legislature changes rules on ballot design and requirements for announcing results on Election Night.

Lisa Disch, a Democratic Ann Arbor City Council member who helped champion the ballot initiative, hopes the legislature acts soon. But she’s wary that the Republican-led legislature might not support the wishes of a predominantly Democratic city.

“With the legislature the way it is, we really don’t know how long it would take,” said Disch, who also is a professor of political science at the University of Michigan. “But if a few more cities adopted it, that would be helpful.”

Ron Zimmerman, executive director of the advocacy group Rank MI Vote, said his group is now working with East Lansing, Kalamazoo, Royal Oak, Traverse City and other communities to approve their own ranked choice voting ballot initiatives. With enough pressure from cities, Zimmerman thinks the legislature, a judge or the state may eventually allow the voting method. 

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