News. Debate. Community. Levers for a better democracy.
The State of Reform
Download Unite America’s free report
Download Unite America's free report analyzing the impact of four key political reforms.


FairVote is a nonpartisan champion of electoral reforms that give voters greater choice, a stronger voice, and a representative democracy that works for all Americans. Since 1992, we have been a nonpartisan trailblazer that advances and wins electoral reforms at the local, state, and national level through strategic research, communications, strategic advocacy and collaboration. Our engagement in influential research has helped dramatically expand use of ranked choice voting and forms of proportional representation in local elections.
News. Community. Debate. Levers for better democracy.

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter.

MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images

Supports of ranked-choice voting in Massachusetts rallied to support the alternative voting method in July.

As ranked-choice voting gains acceptance, critics push back

Most Americans are accustomed to a winner-take-all voting process, making one, decisive choice between a multitude of candidates.

Ranked-choice voting changes the standard methodology. RCV allows voters to rank multiple candidates in order of personal preference, replacing a "plurality winner" system with a vastly different election process that hasn't been widely seen in the United States for some time.

This past year, ranked-choice voting has been having a sort of coming-out party. It was used in Democratic presidential primaries in four states as well as the Nevada caucuses. And referendums instituting ranked-choice voting are on the ballot this fall in five cities and three states — Alaska, Massachusetts and North Dakota.

Keep reading... Show less

State Sen. Phil Fortunado, one of 36 candidates running for governor, called the contest a "clown race." With so many candidates, no one is likely to win a plurality of the vote.

In the 'other' Washington, we deserve better than a clown race

Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, has been a member of the city council in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland since 2012 and was previously ranking Republican on the state House committee that oversees election law. Miller, a physician who advises health care startups, is on the board of FairVote Washington. That group's executive director, Lisa Ayrault, contributed.

"This is really turning into a clown race," one of our Republican candidates for governor told the Seattle Times in advance of this month's primary election. There were three dozen options on the ballot. Sixteen were independent or minority-party candidates, 15 were Republicans and five were Democrats.

And then there were the quintet of Republicans, the quartet of Democrats and the pair of Libertarians running for lieutenant governor.

We're talking about vitally important elections in a decently sized state with several, but not all, of the electoral reform boxes ticked off. Though critics point out ways to increase transparency, a bipartisan commission has drawn Washington's political district lines since 1991. A top-two runoff primary system has been used since 2008. The Legislature instituted statewide vote-by-mail starting in 2011.

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter

Despite these advancements, the primary that was supposed to climax Aug. 4 revealed several of our system's shortcomings and challenges — not even mentioning the fact that it took until Tuesday, two weeks later, for essentially all the votes to be counted.

In the lieutenant governor's race, for example, the top finisher with 25 percent of the vote is Democrat Denny Heck, who's giving up his seat in Congress in hopes of winning the No. 2 job in Olympia. In second place, at 19 percent, is Democratic state Sen. Marko Liias. Not only does neither of the front-runners command the support of even three of every 10 voters, but also the next three highest finishers are all Republicans and have 33 percent of the vote between them. In total, 43 percent of voters in that race preferred a Republican. But with two Democrats in the two available spots for the general election, the voices of conservative voters in this race will be effectively locked out.

Let's focus on the race for governor and its 36 candidates. The two-term incumbent, Democrat Jay Inslee, looks to have secured just a hair more than a majority of the 2.5 million votes cast. The second-place finisher, who also advances to the general election in November, will be Republican Loren Culp — with just 17 percent support. The police chief of a town of 1,100 in the state's remote northeast corner, he first gained headlines for refusing to enforce a voter-approved initiative tightening restrictions on firearms — and hundreds of supporters at his election night party ignored the public health rules set by the pandemic.

In other words, 15 Republicans managed to divide the conservative vote into ineffective little slivers. (The one who made the "clown car" complaint, state Sen. Phil Fortunado, got out of the car in sixth place, with a 4 percent showing.)

So how to turn a clown race into a process where each vote matters — even with so many candidates? More importantly, in such a crowded field, how do we avoid electing a clown whom a majority of voters really don't want? The state's current election system can't prevent it.

A proven enhancement can help. The key is to use a format that results in the winner actually having majority support — rather than just a plurality.

The best way to assure that is to use ranked-choice voting, something you've probably been hearing about lately. Better technology and voter education are leading to smooth rollouts and satisfied voters in the many places that now use it.

In RCV contests, voters rank as many candidates as they like, in order of preference. A candidate with a majority of first-choice votes wins. Otherwise, the candidate with the fewest No. 1 votes gets eliminated and their voters' second choices get counted. The process continues until a candidate has majority support. (For a nice visual overview, search YouTube for "Is ranked choice voting a better way to pick a president?")

RCV and our "top two" system have common roots. RCV is simply the logical extension of the same idea behind top two: Candidates should be required to get a majority of votes to win an election.

When there are three candidates for a job, the two systems generally function the same: The people with the highest and second-highest numbers of votes advance to the next round while the other one goes home — although that last-place candidate's supporters have a say in choosing between the finalists, either in November (using top two) or in an instant runoff (under RCV).

Top two fails the cause of functioning democracy when there are more than three in a race. In crowded fields, like our races this summer for Washington's top executive posts, candidates with similar views can split up the support of the majority of voters — the result being that the two candidates who advance may not be the pair a majority would actually prefer.

RCV solves this problem of "vote-splitting" by effectively conducting a series of "instant runoff" elections where losing candidates are eliminated sequentially until a majority winner is elected.

Ranked-choice elections are constitutionally sound. Kansas, Wyoming, Alaska and Hawaii used the system in their Democratic presidential primaries this year. Maine uses it for all state and federal elections, including president for the first time this fall. Twenty localities across the country have RCV in place.

It's time for Washington state and other jurisdictions to stop putting up with vote splitting and make sure every vote matters. It doesn't have to be a clown race, nor do we have to accept a clown, when we can do so much better.

Legislative Town Hall Workshop

Organizer: FairVote Washington

Have you ever wondered what lobbying looks like, or how to persuade a legislator to support your agenda? Town halls are one of the most effective ways to engage with your legislators. Join our legislative team for an interactive workshop to learn how to be effective as a citizen lobbyist at town halls and campaign events. During this workshop, you can expect to learn:

  • How to craft a great town hall question
  • How to read your audience and adjust your message to resonate with the person you're trying to persuade
  • How to find upcoming events with your legislators

Location: Virtual

RCV 101 Webinar

Organizer: FairVote Washington

Are you curious to learn more about ranked-choice voting? Wondering how this simple, common-sense, non-partisan reform strengthens our democracy? Ranked-choice voting makes your vote more powerful, makes campaigns more civil, and ensures that your vote isn't wasted. Join us to learn more!

Topics we'll discuss: What is ranked-choice voting? What are the benefits? Where is it being used today? What do critics say? What's our plan to bring ranked-choice voting to Washington?

Location: Virtual

© Issue One. All rights reserved.