GUEST COMMENTARY: Ranked-choice voting initiative favors no one but voters
Alaska Republican Party Vice Chair Ann Brown frames ranked-choice voting as a liberal scheme that will destroy Alaska’s elections system. But there is nothing in the system that favors any party or ideology. As former Alaska Republican Party attorney Ken Jacobus said of ranked-choice voting when a similar initiative was on the ballot in 2002, “It makes sure that everyone who gets elected has a majority of voter support.”
That year, Republicans championed the initiative and Democrats fought it.
Under ranked-choice voting, also called preferential or instant runoff voting, voters rank candidates in order of preference. All first-choice votes are tallied, and if any candidate receives a majority – that is, 50 percent plus one – the candidate wins. If no candidate receives a majority, the last-place candidate is removed and those votes are redistributed to those voters’ second-choice candidates. The process continues until a candidate receives more than 50 percent of votes.
Under the plurality system we currently use, a candidate need only have more votes than any other candidate. In a three-way race, a candidate could win with the support of 34 percent of voters. Some jurisdictions require runoff elections to ensure the winner has majority support. Ranked-choice voting effectively holds runoff elections on a single ballot.
The state of Maine and a growing number of U.S. cities have adopted ranked-choice voting. Five states – all Republican-leaning – use the system for military and overseas voters in runoffs: Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Roberts Rules of Order recommends preferential voting, and many private organizations use it for their elections, including the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, the American Chemical Society, and the Society of Actuaries. (Actuaries! They know how to count.)
Ranked-choice voting eliminates the spoiler effect, which occurs when a minor candidate takes enough votes from one of two major candidates to throw the election to the less-popular of the front runners. Many Alaskans recall the 1994 gubernatorial election, when Democrat Tony Knowles beat Republican Jim Campbell by just 538 votes, or 0.3 percentage points, with 41 percent of the vote. Another 13 percent of the vote went to the late Jack Coghill of the right-leaning Alaskan Independence Party, whom many viewed as a spoiler.
While the spoiler effect can distort elections outcomes, fear of the spoiler effect is just as bad. It prevents people from voting for their first-choice candidates and likely depresses turnout, because how inspiring is it to cast a vote for the lesser of two evils? Fear of being a spoiler prevents good candidates from jumping into a race against two major candidates. In business terms, the system suppresses healthy competition.
By removing these distortions, ranked-choice voting is an antidote to growing cynicism about our democracy. It’s also an antidote to hyper-partisanship. In a ranked-choice system, a candidate can’t afford to appeal to just a narrow segment of their constituency.
Jacobus, the Republican Party official, explained it well to the Anchorage Daily News in 2002:
Mr. Jacobus said preferential voting would increase turnout and allow supporters of minor candidates to vote their consciences and still potentially make a difference through the ranking of other candidates. He said campaigns might even become more civil, because candidates “have to court second-place votes as well as first-place votes.”
The current initiative has three parts. It institutes top-four open primaries, a simple system in which all candidates are on one ballot and the top four vote-getters advance to the general. It establishes ranked-choice voting for general elections.
The initiative also prohibits “dark money,” or large campaign contributions that can’t be traced. Americans know the system is broken: recent polling found only 20 percent are satisfied with our campaign finance system. How should it be fixed? The top suggestion – supported by more than 60 percent of Republicans, Independents, and Democrats – is to require campaign finance disclosure. That’s exactly what this initiative does.
This initiative takes power from parties and vests it in voters. It fosters healthy political competition and civility, paves a path for independent and third-party candidates, enables Alaskans to “follow the money,” and ensures our elected officials have support of a majority of voters. It’s sensible, it’s simple, and it’s time.
Rebecca Braun is a former Alaska political journalist and policy advisor.