Tuesday was a big day for fans of alternative voting systems.
Two-thirds of voters in Burlington cast ballots in favor of restoring ranked-choice voting in Vermont's largest city. If Vermont's Democratic-majority General Assembly and GOP Gov. Phil Scott also sign off on the ballot initiative, ranked-choice voting will be used for city council elections starting next March.
And a rival method, approval voting, made its debut in St. Louis after winning its own approval last year.
With this latest win in Burlington, momentum for ranked-choice voting continues to build across the country. More than 20 cities or counties use RCV, and Alaska just joined Maine as the first states to implement the system. More than two dozen states have active campaigns advocating for RCV, but its biggest debut will be in the New York mayoral primary in June.
Burlington was an early adopter of ranked-choice voting in 2005, when voters chose to implement it for city council and mayoral elections. However, five years and two mayoral elections later, voters decided to revert back to traditional plurality voting after a controversial mayor was elected through RCV.
After a decade without ranked elections, the city council attempted to put an initiative to use RCV for all citywide elections on the ballot last November, but the effort was vetoed by Democratic Mayor Miro Weinberger. Council members then amended the initiative so RCV would only be used for council elections. The mayor approved this narrower use and the initiative was placed on the March 2 ballot.
The pro-RCV campaign Better Ballot Burlington was led by City Councilor Zoraya Hightower, a member of the Progressive Party, and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a Democrat.
Under this alternative voting system, voters rank candidates in order of preference. In the case that no candidate receives majority support, the election goes into an instant runoff in which the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and that person's support is redistributed to voters' second choices. This continues until one candidate crosses the 50 percent threshold.
Proponents say ranked-choice voting deters negative campaigning and supports more consensus-driven politics, while also boosting the election prospects of women and people of color. Opponents argue the system is confusing and doesn't necessarily lead to better representation.
While ranked-choice voting is probably the most widely known and used alternative voting method, it's not the only option. St. Louis used approval voting for the first time in its mayoral election Tuesday, becoming the second city to employ the system (after Fargo, N.D.).
This voting system allowed the city's voters to "approve" of as many of the four mayoral candidates as they liked. The two candidates who received the most votes, Tishaura Jones and Cara Spencer, will now advance to the April general election — guaranteeing the city will have its second female mayor.
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Proponents of ranked-choice voting have failed in their attempts to bring the alternative election system to Massachusetts and are confronting a potential defeat in Alaska as well.
The twin setbacks would amount to a big reversal of fortune for one of the darling ideas of democracy reform: Allowing voters to list candidates in order of preference, then reallocating the secondary choices of the poorer performers until one person emerges with majority support. Maine is now the only state using ranked elections almost exclusively
But a switch to so-called RCV for municipal elections was approved in two cities in California, two in Minnesota and one in Colorado. And voters in St. Louis voted to embrace another alternative election format for local primaries called approval voting.
Advocates say that conducting RCV elections will eliminate the harshest partisanship and spur more consensus-driven politics, tamp down on negative campaigning, weaken the major party duopoly and promote the election prospects of women and people of color. Opponents label the system as unnecessarily confusing and prone to manipulation (if not fraud) by smart and well-funded candidates.
In Massachusetts, voters rejected the idea with a solid 55 percent opting against it — a margin of 308,000 votes with all but a handful of votes yet to be counted Thursday.
Cara Brown McCormick, campaign manager for the effort, conceded that proponents "came up short" but praised all those who worked on the ballot initiative. Paul Diego Craney, spokesman for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, said his side defeated the proposal "because its costs far outweigh its very limited benefits."
In the end, most of the state's high-profile Democrats were behind he measure and most Republicans, including Gov. Charlie Baker, opposed it.
The proposal in Alaska would combine ranked-choice voting for some federal and state offices in general elections with open primaries for state executive, state legislative and congressional offices where the top four finishers would have faced off under an RCV system in the fall.
With votes cast in person early and on Election Day tallied — almost three-fifths the expected total -- the proposal was being rejected by a lopsided 65 percent of Alaskans. The 55,000 vote gap could shift and potentially be reversed when 152,000 mailed ballots are opened and counted starting Tuesday, however, and proponents of the package said they had reason for optimism that would happen.
Under RCV, voters are allowed to support more than one candidate, ranking them in order of preference. If no one wins outright with a majority of first-choice votes, the person with the fewest No. 1 votes is dropped and those ballots get redistributed based on their No. 2 choices — the process repeating in an instant, computerized runoff until one candidate has a majority of support.
Backers of ranked-choice voting found success with ballot measures approved in Eureka and Albany, Calif., as well as Bloomington and Minnetonka, Minn., and in Boulder, Colo. — continuing a string of wins at the local level, capped last year by a switch to ranked elections in New York in time for next year's mayoral race.
The mayor and city council will be chosen using RCV in Eureka, Bloomington and Minnetonka. In Albany, the new system will be used to select members of the city council and school board; Boulder will use it to choose the mayor.
Voters in St. Louis, meanwhile, voted 2-1 to switch next year to an election system sometimes viewed as a rival of RCV for the attention of those who say American democracy isn't benefiting from the traditional system: Voters select one candidate, and the one with the most votes win.
The approval voting system will allow voters to check as many as they can live with in all-candidate primaries, and the two endorsed on the most ballots will square off in the general election. Proponents say this will improve the prospects of Black candidates for mayor and council in one of the nation's biggest minority-majority cities.
Ranked-choice voting almost played a role for the first time in a Senate race, but incumbent Republican Susan Collins of Maine emerged as the winner Wednesday as returns neared completion and she barely crested 50 percent of the vote.
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Gray is a Baptist minister, secretary of the Missouri Democratic Party and a former state senator in Kansas. Fields is a New York physician and a board member of Open Primaries, which advocates for nonpartisan nominating elections.
While Donald Trump vs. Joe Biden is, of course, the main event in American democracy this week, there are new conversations taking place in Black politics looking beyond this year toward important changes in the relationship between Black empowerment, electoral reform and the Democratic Party.
Since the Gary Convention, the historic 1972 gathering of 8,000 Black leaders in Indiana, the dominant electoral strategy for Black empowerment has been to elect African Americans through the Democratic Party. This strategy has been successful at increasing the number of African American office holders, including the first Black president. But it has been less successful at impacting living conditions and political power for the Black community as a whole.
Diverse African American leaders are opening up conversations about this. It is not yet a full blown debate. The "elect more Black Democrats" approach still dominates. But there is a conversation emerging, fueled by an ascendant Black Lives Matter movement that refuses to be subsumed into partisan politics as usual.
Jessica Byrd, a founder of the Electoral Justice Project at the Movement for Black Lives, put it this way in a New York Times op-ed two months ago: "Parties want our votes while promising little and delivering less. That is because the electoral system was designed as binary; the entry points are two doors expected to fit the voices and policy needs of hundreds of millions of multiracial constituents. Instead, for a new generation of Black activists, success lies in the process of making change — in politics, policies and social practices."
Byrd raises two vitally important points — the failure of the parties to deliver on promises while taking the Black community for granted, and the binary structure of the electoral system that affords our community little choice in the matter. And she hinted at how the Black community is often asked to defend and protect the partisan status quo.
For example, in 2014, when anti-gerrymandering reformers tried to create a citizens commission to draw electoral maps in Illinois, the Democratic legislative leadership in Springfield asked African American and Latino elected officials to be the "first line of defense" against the effort. They were told to assert that reforming gerrymandering would be harmful to black and brown people. But are the interests of our communities best served by protecting the Democratic Party against competition?
In Florida, Democratic Party activists are using a similar playbook. Despite polls showing that 70 percent of Black voters in Florida support open primaries, and that hundreds of thousands of Black independent voters would be enfranchised by ending closed primaries, Democratic Party activists have been campaigning actively against the measure on Tuesday's ballot that would open most of the state's primary elections to all voters — with the top two finishers advancing to November, regardless of their party ID.
Their sole — and quite false — talking point is that if you let everyone participate in primaries, Black candidates will suffer. Even worse, they're using the Black community to persuade white liberals that enfranchising independent voters is anti-Black. That's troublesome.
Many Black Democrats reject this premise. Cori Bush, the Democrat overwhelmingly favored to win election as the new congresswoman for St. Louis, and state Rep. Rasheen Aldredge of St. Louis have fused their community activism with outspoken support for structural reform. Both are advocating for Prop D for Democracy, a referendum that would create a new election system for municipal offices in their city: In the primary, voters would have the ability to approve of as many candidates as they choose — whether Democrat, Republican or independent — and the the top two vote getters would meet again in November. The proposal emerged out of conversations among citizens unhappy with an electoral system that produced politicians, Black and white, without strong majorities behind them.
In Baltimore, nonprofit founder Kim Klacik has raised more than $6 million for her Republican campaign in an overwhelmingly Democratic congressional district. While much of the national press she has garnered is a function of President Trump's involvement in the race — and while neither of us is advocating that African-Americans become Republicans — it would be foolish to dismiss the traction that Klacik is gaining in the city's Black neighborhoods as purely a function of national dynamics.
Baltimore residents have been profoundly neglected by a local machine that faces no competition and little accountability. Too many American cities like theirs have been left to rot, and the excuse given all too often is that it is Republicans alone who are to blame for substandard schools, high unemployment and violent crime.
A new generation of leaders and activists are raising eyebrows at this timeworn excuse. They want progress, not finger pointing.
In this chaotic and challenging moment, let's not lose sight of two important opportunities. The country is responding positively to Black Lives Matter. And emerging Black leaders and activists are demanding new political strategies and new political rules. They're tired of that glass ceiling of structural racism and partisan corruption imposed by the status quo and want to break right through it.
These are significant developments that open new possibilities for qualitative transformation in the lives of Black Americans and the country as a whole. To take full advantage, we must insist that unscrupulous politicians stop pitting the Black agenda against the reform agenda and embrace what our younger generation is building. Let's break right through that glass ceiling together.
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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.
RCV advocates got a big boost in June when the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences included it among 31 proposals for improving American democracy. The report hailed ranked-choice voting as a more representative system for choosing candidates while eliminating campaign mudslinging that comes with every election cycle.
(Nevertheless, a judge in Maine approved a ballot measure to invalidate ranked-choice voting at the presidential level in the one place it already has been approved statewide.)
As ranked-choice voting has received more attention, it has also become subject to increased pushback. Some experts contend RCV can hurt voter participation and that it isn't necessarily more representative of voters' choices.
Though briefly implemented in the early 1940s across various states, RCV began a modest comeback in the U.S. more recently. Maine became the first state to pass statewide ranked-choice voting in 2016 and more than a dozen cities across the country, including San Francisco, Minneapolis and Cambridge, Mass,. are also using some form of RCV. New York will begin using it for city elections in 2021.
Under RCV, voters can rank candidates for each office in order of personal preference. If no one candidate earns a majority of first-choice ballots, the candidate with the lowest number of top-choice selections is eliminated and his or her votes are allocated to those voters' second-choice candidate. This process continues until one candidate earns a majority. The system is also known as instant runoff voting.
By allowing voters to rank multiple candidates, advocates for RCV say fewer ballots are wasted. Many voters cast ballots early for candidates that end up dropping out of a race, with those ballots no longer contributing to the outcome of an election.
According to a report by Unite America, a nonpartisan good-government advocacy organization, during this year's presidential primaries approximately 3 million ballots were cast across 14 states for candidates who had already withdrawn from the race. Those ballots were "wasted," according to the report. In California alone, local media reported nearly 400,000 ballots were cast in the Democratic presidential primary for candidates who were no longer in the race. (Unite America provides financial support to The Fulcrum.)
In Democratic presidential contests, candidates need to retain 15 percent of the vote in order to earn delegates, with Republican contests requiring 20 percent, creating the potential for candidates no longer running to earned enough support to remain as contenders in the presidential election under a RCV voting system.
RCV advocates say that counting more ballots in an election is more reflective of an electorate's voice, and in turn more democratic. But under the plurality system, where the candidate who earns the most ballots wins, someone who receives less than 50 percent of the vote can still be declared a winner. For example, during Illinois' March primary, Democrat Marie Newman won the nomination for a U.S. House seat with 47.3 percent of the vote. And in May, Republican Cliff Bentz won a House primary with 31.4 percent. Both are favored to win in the fall.
In a blog post, FairVote, a nonpartisan champion of ranked-choice voting, highlighted Newman's win as an example of the flaws with plurality voting and questioned whether these winners are actually the most preferred candidates by their constituents.
With ranked-choice voting, voters might feel more empowered because they can support their first choice — perhaps not a major-party candidate — and still have the power to back other candidates they like without sacrificing their vote. And, proponents says, candidates would be more inclined to wage a civil campaign in order to earn secondary placement on ballots.
"It really changes the incentives for candidates engaging with voters and voters having that greater ability to make their vote count. It's really quite a dramatic way to do it," said Rob Richie, CEO and president of FairVote.
FairVote conducted an analysis of voter turnout in six local jurisdictions in California, Minnesota and New Mexico that implemented RCV. The data showed an uptick in voter participation after the system was changed.
However, some experts contend that ranked-choice voting isn't the perfect solution to finding a stronger, more representative voting system. James Campbell, professor of political science at the University of Buffalo, published a paper this year analyzing the effects of ranked-choice voting in Maine. He said that in some RCV elections, the winning candidates did not receive a majority of the total votes cast because a significant number of voters did not rank the full field of candidates, a phenomenon known as "ballot exhaustion." Campbell argues this defeats the purpose of RCV's intent to represent a majority of voters.
"Portraying ranked-choice voting as getting so many more people out, and participating and the choice, they may be out to vote for their first or second candidate but after that there's a lot of drop off," said Campbell.
Others argue for yet other alternative systems, like approval voting. Fargo, N.D., is the only jurisdiction currently using this system, which allows voters to support multiple candidates without ranking them. Proponents claim it is less complicated for both voters and those charged with tallying the ballots. St. Louis voters will decide in November whether to implement a version of approval voting.
FairVote's Richie recognizes many of the critiques that come with RCV, but says context is critical when analyzing the outcome of RCV implementation. The competitiveness of a race, the number of candidates running and the overarching political climate can be exclusive to a certain election cycle and can widely influence voter participation.
To consider some of those concerns, New York City conducted an analysis of ranked-choice voting prior to putting it on the November 2019 ballot for voter approval. The city heard testimony from RCV advocacy organizations, including FairVote, that affirmed ranking a large number of candidates "can help ameliorate the issue of ballot exhaustion."
Advocates recommended that the city limit voters to ranking five or six candidates as "ballot exhaustion is especially uncommon when voters can rank a reasonable number of candidates."
On top of potential ballot exhaustion, Campbell argued that in certain circumstances like a general election, the pressure should be on all voters to make a clear choice. In the instance that a voter's first choice doesn't earn enough of a majority and their vote is reassigned to their second choice candidate, Campbell said that change is "not really democratic in a sense."
"I think it's psychologically very different to have somebody make that decision as opposed to having their votes used as though they made that decision," said Campbell.
Richie contends that people should not treat ranked-choice voting as a perfect solution, but merely a better option to the current plurality voting system. By looking at the growing data on RCV comprehensively, Richie feels confident it has the potential to effect positive change across the country.
"I think that when you look at the fuller picture, I feel very confident that ranked-choice voting is doing good things," said Richie.
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