Seventy percent of Americans believe that the country is in crisis. I am one of them.
The political divide beneath that belief has multiple dimensions, but the integrity of our election system lies at the heart of the crisis. One side accepts the reality – supported by the courts – that President Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election. The other side seeks to “fix” the system by excluding some voters and empowering election officials or legislatures to alter ballot outcomes.
The “winner take all” character of our plurality elections – whereby winners need not have majority support – drives much of the dissatisfaction. To address this, some jurisdictions have runoff elections between the top two candidates. However, runoffs entail the expense of conducting a second election and frequently suffer from low turnout. An alternative is ranked choice voting.
In RCV, voters rank the candidates in preferred order. Suppose there are three candidates, Amy, Bruce and Connie. One voter might rank them Amy, Connie, Bruce. If none achieves a majority in the first round, the next round eliminates the candidate with the fewest votes. If that is Amy, the ballot in the example counts for Connie in the second round. If there are more than three candidates, the process repeats until one has a majority of the remaining votes.
All ballots count – unless a voter fails to rank every candidate. In the election example above, a ballot listing only Amy would count for no one. To avoid such “ballot exhaustion,” voters must rank at least two candidates. However, omitting a ranking does ensure that the vote cannot go toward a disfavored candidate.
RCV reduces negative campaigning, because possible voter backlash disincentivizes uncivil tactics. It also increases participation by women and minority candidates. They might have small chances of achieving a plurality in a single round of voting, but could succeed as secondary choices for many people.
One concern about RCV is possible voter confusion. However, exit polls in several places indicate that fewer than 10% of voters reported confusion about the novel system. Moreover, large majorities favored continued use of RCV.
A second and critical concern is administrative challenge, especially in this era of election insecurity accusations. Consequently, RCV requires cautious implementation. As a first step, Colorado last year enacted House Bill 21-1071 to facilitate piloting RCV in nonpartisan (mostly municipal) elections.
The legislation mandated three tasks for the secretary of state in 2022. First, develop standards for pre-election testing and post-election ballot auditing. (The few Colorado communities that already use RCV lack such standards.) Second, certify RCV systems that meet the standards for use by county clerks to support municipal elections beginning in 2023. Finally, if possible, secure a statewide license for the certified software to defray the cost of use.
Colorado has a national reputation for the integrity of our mail ballot system – thanks to efforts by secretaries of state from both major parties over the last decade. Adding RCV to this system must meet the same exacting standard.
Locally, given a history of cooperation between the city clerk and the county clerk and recorder, the 2023 Durango City Council election would provide an excellent opportunity to pilot RCV in La Plata County.
Using RCV in local elections is a necessary step toward implementing it statewide. Maine and Alaska have adopted RCV statewide and more than half the states considered RCV at some level in 2021.
RCV may not resolve America’s crisis of democracy – and certainly would not do so quickly – but any initiative to help to bridge the partisan divide has my support.