Ranked-Choice Voting Survives Midterm Ballot Tests

By: - November 8, 2018 12:00 am

An election official hands an “I voted today” sticker to a woman in Auburn, Maine. The Pine Tree State used ranked-choice voting for the first time in a general election Tuesday. Robert F. Bukaty/The Associated Press

A system of voting, in which people rank candidates based on preference, survived consequential tests on midterm ballots this week, paving the way for more places across the country to continue adopting a new way of choosing leaders.

In Maine, voters used ranked-choice voting Tuesday for the first time in a federal general election. In the state’s 2nd Congressional District, no candidate reached the 50-percent threshold, triggering an instant runoff that officials will carry out Friday.

The ranked-choice voting process is different than normal elections. Voters rank candidates from first to last. A candidate who earns more than half the vote wins. If no one passes the threshold, an instant runoff kicks in and the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated. The second-choice votes from those losing ballots are allocated to the remaining candidates. This process, which only requires the original vote, repeats until a candidate gets majority support.

Proponents of the system say it guarantees that winners in packed races eventually receive majority support. They also say it reduces negative campaigning, since it requires candidates to reach out to voters who may rank them as a second or third choice.

Maine successfully used ranked-choice voting in statewide elections for the first time during June primaries.

The idea is spreading. In Hampton County, Massachusetts, voters passed a ballot initiative this week to adopt the system.

And in Memphis, voters overwhelmingly rejected two ballot referendums that attempted to block the city’s implementation of ranked-choice voting for the 2019 municipal elections.

This year’s ballot measure stems from an effort a decade ago, when Memphians voted to implement the ranked-choice voting system, but local and state elections officials said the city didn’t have the equipment or legality to run elections that way.

When Shelby County hired new elections administrator Linda Phillips in 2016, she said the county could, in fact, use ranked-choice voting and began planning to roll out the system for the 2019 municipal elections in Memphis.

Right before the new system could take place, however, members of the Memphis City Council placed these referendums on the ballot to block it. Critics of that move, such as Steven Mulroy, a University of Memphis law professor, said it was an attempt by members of the council to hold onto power.

“They’re trying to undo it before we’ve even had a chance to do it one time,” he told Stateline before the vote. “It’s an anti-competitive, pro-establishment, pro-incumbency system, resistant to change, resistant to reform.”

Because the referendums failed, the new voting system is on track to be implemented by October 2019. But since the state’s elections coordinator told Phillips in a letter this fall that the system is illegal in Tennessee, Mulroy said, he expects proponents of the system and the state will likely go to court to establish the system’s legality.

If Memphis clears a path for the new system, it will join Las Cruces, New Mexico, and St. Louis Park, Minnesota, in using ranked-choice voting for the first time in municipal elections next year. According to FairVote, a nonprofit that advocates for ranked-choice voting, more than 10 other U.S. cities already use the system.

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Matt Vasilogambros
Matt Vasilogambros

Matt Vasilogambros covers voting rights, gun laws and Western climate policy for Stateline. He lives in San Diego, California.