Ranked Choice Voting Gains Traction for 2020

As an independent candidate for public office, Tiffany Bond might typically be seen as a spoiler in a conventional election.

But when she ran for Congress in 2018 in Maine’s second Congressional district, she campaigned in Maine’s first major election using ranked choice voting, enacted for all state and federal elections in 2016.

Ranked choice voting is now in use in 18 cities, and five states—Hawaii, Alaska, Wyoming, Kansas, and Nevada—plan to use it in their Democratic primaries and caucuses in 2020.

In ranked choice voting, the electorate ranks all candidates running in an election from their first to last choice. If no candidate wins an absolute majority, the candidate winning the fewest number of votes is eliminated, and those ballots which ranked that candidate as the first choice then count toward the candidate marked as the second choice. The ballots are then recounted and the process repeats as needed until a single candidate has won an absolute majority of the votes.

In the Maine election, because voters could select multiple candidates, knowing that their second or third choices would receive a vote if their first choice didn’t accrue a majority, Bond got a more serious look.

“I’m positive I got more votes than I would have because of ranked choice voting,” Bond says.

She didn’t win. Bond pulled nearly 6% of the vote, ranking third out of four candidates. Victory instead went to now-U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat who unseated the Republican incumbent in a second round of counting when no candidate initially received a majority. But ranked choice voting also led to Golden’s win in a largely rural district, allowing Golden to rack up enough second-choice votes to push him over the top, winning with 50.6% of the vote, even though incumbent Bruce Poliquin led in the first round of counting.

Bond is running in 2020 in an effort to unseat longtime Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. And she’ll do it knowing that she won’t be a “spoiler” to the Democratic candidate, but a sound choice for independent voters who are typically forced to compromise their values to vote for one of two major parties.

Maine is the first state in the country to enact ranked choice voting for statewide races. But the system reached new heights as a burgeoning movement in November 2019’s election when New York City’s voters passed a measure adopting ranked choice for local races, effectively tripling the number of voters who will use ranked choice voting in the U.S.

And New York City’s approval comes at a time when ranked choice voting is poised to take hold in several more cities and states, with a likely 2020 ballot measure in Massachusetts and grassroots efforts gaining traction across the country.

Alex Kaplan, vice president of policy and campaigns at RepresentUs, which works to support grassroots efforts to implement ranked choice voting, says the system is seeing “exponential growth.”

“I don’t think we’re even close to where this movement is going to be in the next few years,” Kaplan says.

Making Elections Fairer

The advantage of ranked choice voting eliminates the problem of a single candidate winning a race after only garnering a plurality of the vote, such as what happened with former Maine Gov. Paul LePage, who won office in 2010 with just 37.6% of the vote in a five-candidate race. Instead, a “majoritarian” result is achieved that, in theory, better reflects the will of the voters.

“Ranked choice voting doesn’t force what’s really a false choice of all-or-nothing,” says Justin Levitt, law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who studies electoral systems. “It gives every person one vote, but communicates more information with that single vote.”

Proponents say the system also opens elections to more candidates of different ideologies, constituencies, backgrounds, and income levels, and it breaks loose the two-party system in which votes cast for third parties or independents are seen as wasted at best.

“I think people are really starting to understand that we have a fundamental flaw with how our elections work,” Kaplan says. “When voters don’t feel like they can vote their conscience without throwing their vote away, or risk voting for someone who will spoil the election, we have a problem.”

Ranked choice voting has picked up steam in American cities since about 2000. California cities Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco, and San Leandro adopted it in the 2000s. Other cities large and small, from Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, to Telluride, Colorado, have taken it up in the years since. Four more cities adopted the system in 2018 alone, according to FairVote, which consults for ranked choice voting movements.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, has used a proportional form of this system since 1941, in which city council and school board officials are elected in proportion to voters’ share of the population. At that time, more than two dozen major cities used ranked choice voting, but did away with it because of changes in election technology and the increased ability of racial minorities to take office, according to FairVote.

Changing the Way Campaigns Are Run

Bond, the independent Maine candidate, says that running under a nontraditional system allowed her to campaign in a nontraditional way.

Ranked choice voting created a “paradigm shift” that allowed that to happen, Bond says.

“I wasn’t the crazy person, I was the person who was walking the walk,” she says, “and that was a really nice change that wouldn’t have happened but for ranked choice voting.”

A major component of Bond’s political platform is her stance against money in politics. When she ran for Congress in 2018, she declined donations and adopted a campaign she called #MaineRaising, in which she told supporters to donate to local charities or shop at small businesses in the district instead of donating to her campaign. Bond also refrained from distributing yard signs, telling supporters that if they really wanted one, they could print one out from her website and recycle it when they’re done.

Another shift that ranked choice voting brings about is a more collegial tone in campaigns, says Michael Li, senior counsel at The Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program. Because candidates are running to become voters’ second and third choice as well as their first, they are incentivized to appeal to a broader base of voters and hold back from attacking their opponents.

“It encourages people to expand outside their base and think about all the broad constituencies,” Li says. “It creates a very different political dynamic.”

Indeed, that has borne out in several local races across the country. In San Francisco’s 2018 mayoral election, candidates Jane Kim and Mark Leno endorsed each other, asking voters to make one their first choice and the other their second. Candidates in the 2018 mayoral race in Portland, Maine, also used the ranked choice voting system to appeal to opponents’ supporters as a second choice.

“If somebody squarely knows who their No. 1 [candidate] is, I’m going to ask for their No. 2,” Portland mayoral candidate Kate Snyder told WMTW-TV. She actively rang doorbells at homes with an opponent’s yard sign displayed. “This race is not about disparaging anybody else’s candidacy, it’s about elevating mine and giving voters a reason to believe that I’d be good at the job, that I’ve got the professional and life experience to do the work.”

Snyder won, unseating incumbent Ethan Strimling with 62% of votes.

More Equitable Representation

Cynthia Terrell, founder and executive director of RepresentWomen, which fights for more equal representation of women in public office, says that ranked choice voting results in more women and people of color considering running for office.

That’s because of the more civil tone often adopted in ranked choice elections, as well as a lower barrier of entry. No primary elections are needed in ranked choice voting jurisdictions, which shortens the election season and reduces the cost of running for public office.

Negative campaigns also run up expenses, Terrell says, and more positive campaigns make the political arena more welcoming.

The ranked choice voting cities in California have also yielded more equitable results in practice. A 2016 report by FairVote and RepresentWomen examining elections through November 2016 shows that since the introduction of ranked choice voting, women of color won 23% of all contests, compared with 14% before the system was adopted. Women’s representation has increased in ranked choice voting cities, while it has dropped in cities using the older system during the period studied. Women and people of color together won 81% of all ranked choice elections, up from 67% of the same number of races before ranked choice.

“People are very ready for another way of doing things,” Terrell says. “People are yearning for a more positive, civil political atmosphere and I know people want more women and people of color in office.”

That’s also the case in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where FairVote says that its version of ranked choice and proportional representation has allowed for a city government more representative of the city’s political and racial minority groups.

Going into November 2020, momentum is strong in Massachusetts for a ballot initiative that would apply ranked choice voting to all elections in the state. Volunteers have gathered more than enough signatures across the state for an initiative that only now needs the approval of the Massachusetts legislature to go on the ballot. Leaders in both parties have endorsed the idea.

“Folks are enthusiastic about the potential to see their vote enhanced by having more choices and a greater voice,” says Mac D’Alessandro, campaign director at Voter Choice For Massachusetts. “When we talk to people and have the opportunity to explain what this is and the benefits, people like it.”

Ellen Read, a Democratic state representative in New Hampshire, introduced a bill last year proposing statewide ranked choice voting, but it was killed in committee, despite crowded public hearings. She plans to reintroduce it again in 2021, as she’s seen wide public support for it among the public.

“Everyone thinks it makes perfect sense,” Read says.

Support also is building in Illinois, where State Sen. Laura Murphy introduced a ranked choice voting bill in the General Assembly that garnered several sponsors, and is set to go up for a vote by May, something previous ranked choice voting bill sponsor Barack Obama failed to do during his time as a state senator.

Ranked choice voting also has been adopted as a remedy for voting rights violations in Eastpointe, Michigan, where Black candidates had largely been shut out of the city’s at-large city council seats, despite representing 46% of the population. Eastpointe entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice to use ranked choice voting in the summer of 2019, and used it for the first time to elect two city council members and the city’s first Black mayor in November 2018.

Levitt, of Loyola Law School, says he hopes ranked choice voting will at least be considered an option by courts in addressing voting rights issues.

“There are really important options that people are just beginning to get more familiar with and ought to be in the regular toolkit for people thinking about how they can be better served than the options they have now,” Levitt says.

Though ranked choice voting won’t fix other issues such as gerrymandering, voter suppression, or the influence of money on the political system, proponents say it could make elected officials more representative of their constituents and allow more ideas to enter into public discourse.

“More and more people want to run for office and more and more people want to get involved, and that should never be a problem,” Kaplan of RepresentUs says. “We want that marketplace of ideas. We never want voters to feel like they shouldn’t be able to vote their conscience.”