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Ranked-choice voting has challenged the status quo. Its popularity will be tested in November

Volunteers supporting the Idaho open primaries ballot initiative cheer as Luke Mayville announces that they have reached their goal of 90,000 signatures during a gather at Ivywild Park in Boise, Idaho, on April 27, 2024. Voters in at least two states – Democratic-leaning Oregon and Nevada – will decide this fall whether to institute new election processes that include ranked voting. In deeply conservative Idaho, groups are pushing for a November ballot initiative that would overturn a ban on ranked voting that was passed last year by the Republican-led Legislature. | Kyle Green, AP Photo
JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Alaska’s new election system — with open primaries and ranked voting — has been a model for those in other states who are frustrated by political polarization and a sense that voters lack real choice at the ballot box.
Used for the first time in 2022, the changes helped propel the first Alaska Native to a seat in Congress. They could be short-lived.
Opponents of ranked voting want to repeal it and are entangled in a legal fight over whether their initiative will be able to remain on Alaska’s November ballot. It’s just one example this year of an intensifying fight over a more expansive way for voters to choose candidates, driven in part by deep dissatisfaction with the status quo and opposition from political parties and partisan groups that fear losing power.
Voters in at least two states — Democratic-leaning Oregon and Nevada — will decide this fall whether to institute new election processes that include ranked voting. In deeply conservative Idaho, groups are pushing for a November ballot initiative that would overturn a ban on ranked voting passed last year by the Republican-led legislature. Measures proposing ranked voting, also referred to as ranked-choice voting, also are being pursued in Colorado and the District of Columbia.
In Missouri, a measure advanced by the GOP-controlled legislature will ask voters in November whether to ban ranked voting. This follows an unsuccessful citizen attempt in 2022 to get an Alaska-style system before voters. At least nine states have banned ranked voting, and the Louisiana legislature also passed a ban this past week.
The attempts to introduce a new way of electing leaders and the pushback from those with established power are symptoms of dissatisfaction with the nation’s politics and concern over the future of democracy, said AJ Simmons, research director of the Center for State Policy and Leadership at the University of Illinois Springfield, who has written on the issue.
“We’ve got this group of frustrated, concerned folks that are looking for a solution to problems that they see,” he said. “At least some have landed on this idea of like, ‘Well, is it maybe how we’re choosing our leaders that’s leading to this problem?’”
Just two states use ranked voting — Maine for state primaries and for federal elections, and Alaska for state and federal general election contests. Many U.S. cities, including New York, San Francisco and Minneapolis, use ranked voting, while Portland, Oregon, plans to begin using it this fall. A years-old pilot program in Utah allows cities there to conduct ranked-vote local elections.
Supporters see ranked voting as a more inclusive process that gives voters greater choice and reduces negative campaigning because candidates need a coalition of support to be successful.
In Alaska, under ranked voting, ballots are counted in rounds: A candidate can win outright during the first round of counting if they receive more than 50% of the vote. If no one hits that threshold, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Voters who chose that candidate as their top pick have their votes count for their next choice. Rounds continue until two candidates remain, and then whoever has the most votes wins.
It’s hard to conclude how ranked voting is changing elections because the systems often differ from place to place, making comparisons difficult, Simmons said.
Alaska has a primary system in which the top four vote-getters in a race, regardless of party, advance to a general election where ranked voting is used. The Nevada and Idaho proposals are similar, while Oregon would keep its primaries closed and limit ranked voting to federal and top statewide races, including for governor.
Whether ranked voting is a successful antidote to voter apathy and anger is unclear, but many are open to the idea.
“I believe in the marketplace of ideas, and if there isn’t real competing, the ability for people to really debate, to really get good answers because one side just doesn’t have to pay attention, we suffer as a result. So if ranked voting helps toward that end, great,” said Brett DeLange, an Idaho voter who is a retired deputy attorney general.
While Oregon’s proposal advanced from the Democratic-led legislature, in many instances the party in power doesn’t like ranked voting because of the uncertainty it injects into election outcomes.
Republicans in Idaho, who control the legislature and hold every statewide office, have been attacking the proposed ranked voting citizen initiative there. State Republican Party Chairwoman Dorothy Moon called it “a pernicious plot to take away your ability to vote for conservative lawmakers.”
A state lawmaker unsuccessfully tried to derail it by proposing an amendment to the Idaho Constitution that would limit all elections to one round of voting; State Attorney General Raul Labrador lost a lawsuit brought by initiative backers after they said he assigned a biased title to it.
In the District of Columbia, the Democratic Party sued unsuccessfully to stop the proposed ranked voting initiative, claiming in part that it violates the city’s charter that requires top officials to be elected on a partisan basis.
Sondra Cosgrove, a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada who supports the ranked voting initiative in her state, has watched Alaska’s system closely. She said many voters feel political parties have too much control and don’t feel like they have a real choice.
“We’ve got some races where there’s like one person, and then we’ve got other races where there’s like 15 people and they’re all screaming crazy things. And my students are like, ‘Why can’t we have something in the middle?’” said Cosgrove, who also is executive director of the civic engagement nonprofit Vote Nevada.
In Alaska, those on both sides of the ranked voting debate cite the success of Democrat Mary Peltola two years ago. She defeated former Gov. Sarah Palin and Nick Begich, both Republicans, in special and regular elections for the state’s sole U.S. House district following the death of Republican Don Young, who had held the seat for 49 years.
Kay Brown, a Democrat, said she was initially skeptical about ranked voting but feels it should be used for at least a few more election cycles so voters can fairly assess it. She said Peltola’s victory was significant.
“I would have to say, I can’t really argue with the results we’ve seen,” Brown said.
Phil Izon, a leader of the effort to repeal ranked voting, said his grandfather’s confusion over how the system works prompted him to begin researching it and then write the repeal initiative, which has been beset with controversy. It’s the subject of a legal challenge aimed at keeping it off the November ballot, with arguments in the case scheduled for Tuesday.
Some people are more likely to vote for just one person, which can cause ballots to be exhausted “prematurely” and lead to “unpredictable results” such as Peltola winning the House seat, said Izon, who said he doesn’t align with a political party.
Amber Lee, an independent and one of the plaintiffs suing to keep the repeal initiative off the ballot, says the ranked voting system is giving voters greater choice.
“I think it’s worth giving this more time,” she said. “We’re not making progress in Alaska … with the way that we were doing things.”
Boone reported from Boise, Idaho. Associated Press writer Claire Rush in Portland, Oregon, contributed to this report.
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