Overing is a senior at the University of California, Berkeley, and a chapter development consultant for Bridge USA, a national student-run organization seeking to depolarize college campuses and increase youth civic engagement.
Support for alternative forms of voting appears to be growing in response to increasing dissatisfaction with elected officials at the local, state and federal levels. With many municipalities considering new election procedures, Americans should investigate the various methods and the effects each has on potential election outcomes.
Plurality voting and ranked-choice voting are the most discussed options.
The most popular and widespread model, plurality voting, is the status quo used for the majority of elections. It allows voters to choose the one candidate they think best represents their interests, and the candidate with the most votes wins. It's straightforward, relatively easy to implement and common sense. It ensures every vote counts equally.
Despite its simplicity, plurality voting has downsides. It greatly privileges those who control the means of disseminating information about each candidate.The news media and social media giants can skew their sites to favor, or report more negatively, on one candidate. Additionally, better-funded campaigns can spread their message farther.
The most obvious disadvantage to plurality voting is the reduction of most contests to two viable candidates, at most. The Republicans and Democrats want only one nominee for the general election, since sending an additional candidate would likely cause the party to split its votes and assure victory for the other side. Many voters also avoid third-party candidates since they aren't perceived as viable.
And so, plurality voting encourages a winner-takes-all model that eliminates otherwise viable candidates from the election, discouraging parties from nominating more than one person and discouraging voters from choosing other candidates.
Ranked-choice voting has emerged as an attractive alternative to the current system. RCV has gained significant traction, replacing plurality voting for elections in a couple dozen cities across the country and throughout Maine.
RCV attempts to address the reductive effects of plurality voting by allowing voters to rank the available candidates from best to worst. When ballots are tallied, the candidate with the least number of first-choice votes is removed, votes for that candidate are reallocated to whoever the voter ranked second, and this process continues until one candidate is undeniably on top.
This design, then, removes the constraints that force a choice between two candidates. Voters can vote for a third party or un-nominated candidate comfortably, since their votes will be redirected to a preferred establishment candidate if their first choice is defeated.
Just like plurality voting, however, RCV does not come without issues. It can cause a phenomenon known as ballot exhaustion, in which voters effectively lose their vote once their ranked candidates all fall out of the running. Ballot exhaustion creates a dangerous scenario in which the winner might not receive a majority of votes.
In effect, voters who didn't include the last remaining candidates don't get a say. They don't get a vote. This dilemma can only be alleviated by having voters rank every candidate. While this approach might work in local elections, exporting it to the state and federal levels (in which the number of candidates expands significantly) would be daunting.
Even the plurality voting system limits how many candidates can be on a ballot, and with good reason. Not only would functional limitations of the ballot's size restrain the number who can actually be listed, but also inundating constituents with options can decrease civic engagement. Whereas voters can be expected to read through policy positions of two or three candidates, doing so for many more would be unrealistic.
As a result, RCV might increase the diversity of candidates voters feel comfortable with — but it does so at the cost of potentially disenfranchising voters or disincentivizing civic engagement. On the other hand, plurality voting is simple to understand and ensures every vote counts. Still, it does so while creating the opportunity for undue influence in elections and restricting the number of viable choices.
And so, while plurality voting is proven to work and RCV has shown promise, neither is without bad side effects. A potential solution might be a middle-ground approach, in which the different methods are used for different scales of elections.
Take Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas and Wyoming as an example. While they used RCV for their presidential nominating contests this spring, all will use plurality voting in the fall. The Democratic Party can therefore ameliorate voter concerns over choosing less popular candidates while retaining its unified front in the general.
Ordinarily, RCV in this limited use would still bring concerns of ballot exhaustion and inundation of candidates. However, ranked-choice partisan primaries can avoid these pitfalls. Primaries generally have a manageable number of candidates so every potential nominee can get ranked. The number of issues for voters to parse is limited to items on the party platform and, since those are issues primary voters are likely to be familiar with, smaller differences among candidates will get noticed even though they would seem irrelevant in a general election. And parties don't have to worry about cannibalizing votes from their own candidates.
This solution isn't perfect, but it might alleviate some of the public trust issues with our democracy. Whatever the case, though, citizens should think carefully about changes to voting. Adjustments that might appear beneficial on face can still produce undesirable consequences.
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Grapes is director of advocacy and outreach for Better Wyoming, which works to mobilize residents to call for more progressive policies in the least-populous and one of the most conservative states.
Over the past month, because of Covid-19's menacing march, one state after the next delayed the Democratic presidential contests and other elections by long stretches and switched important rules at the last minute.
But not Wyoming.
Because of forward-thinking planning, the Democrats' nominating contest was largely conducted both safely and on schedule. When the limited in-person caucusing set for Saturday, April 4, was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, mail-in voting that was always expected to generate most of the results was both expanded and extended until the following Friday. Voters were able to cast ballots from the safety of their homes, avoiding unnecessary chaos and ensuring all Wyomingites a say in the election.
To explain how we got to that point: Late last year the state party decided to supplement its traditional caucus with early in-person voting and voting by mail. This was motivated by the goal of encouraging more Wyoming voters to help select a presidential nominee, and this initiative quickly proved popular with citizens. Not only would vote-by-mail allow registered Democrats who requested ballots to vote at home well ahead of Election Day, they could also participate in ranked-choice voting — the ability to rank candidates in order of preference.
This way, if someone's favorite didn't receive many votes, their second choice could still be counted, and so forth. With this model, there's no such thing as vote-splitting and no worry about who is "electable" versus who is aligned with your values. You can vote with your heart and know that your vote counts.
Of course, no one could have foreseen a pandemic upending life as we know it. But as the threat of coronavirus became increasingly pressing, the state's Democratic leadership responded by cancelling the in-person caucuses and instead mailing every registered Democrat a ballot that could be dropped off or mailed back.
This nimble response made it possible to avoid the dismal prospect of a delayed or cancelled election. Voting must be as open, easy and accessible as possible in order to maintain election integrity. And, while there are still ways to make Wyoming elections more accessible — online or automatic voter registration and open primaries — voting by mail is a way to accomplish that.
Now other states should follow Wyoming's lead and implement mail-in voting. Some states that have delayed primaries still have time to ensure that everyone can have a say without endangering health. Rhode Island, for example, moved its primary from April 28 to June 2, a five-week delay that Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo promises will be ample time to get mail ballots in the hands of all eligible voters.
This model could work well outside of a presidential contest as well. And ranked-choice voting could be particularly useful for the many states that have runoff elections planned. With RCV, no one needs to return to the polls weeks or months later; instead, the system essentially allows voters to make their primary and runoff choices at the same time because of its "instant runoff" process of weeding out lower-finishing candidates until just one has majority support.
Understandably, some are worried about unintended consequences of adopting "new" methods, contending it is safer to delay elections and use existing systems than innovate. Voting by mail and ranked-choice voting aren't new or unfamiliar; in reality, both are tried and true. Easy, no-excuse absentee voting has been an option in Wyoming for years and is the law in 33 states and the District of Columbia.
Similarly, ranked-choice voting is used in jurisdictions across the country, including five states for presidential primaries, all Maine's federal elections and in local elections across eight states. In Wyoming, eight names were on the ballot. So, even though the race had ended by the time the state's contest closed, plenty of people voted beforehand. That means, with the help of RCV, Joe Biden got a good view of where his support stands in the state compared to Bernie Sanders and all the rest — and supporters of all eight still got their voices heard.
We don't know what the country will look like in two months — if polling places will be safe places to congregate or even if people will be permitted to leave their homes. We do know fair elections are sacrosanct. The choices we make now will have an impact on our democracy for generations to come.
Mail-in voting with ranked ballots safeguards that process. Take my state's word for it.
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Advocates for making the coronavirus pandemic the time for changing American voting habits are taking heart there won't be any polling places for three of the next four Democratic presidential contests.
Voting in Alaska and Hawaii will now join Wyoming's caucuses in being conducted entirely remotely, among the latest wave of changes in the world of elections during a historic public health emergency.
While several states moved to make voting easier, Wisconsin pressed ahead with plans for a traditional primary April 7 and has now been confronted by four federal lawsuits hoping to force changes. And Florida reported the first known cases of poll workers subsequently testing positive for coronavirus.
Here are the latest developments:
The state's requirement that an adult witness must sign all mail-in ballots violates the constitutional rights and health of as many as 250,000 older voters who are avoiding others because of their high risk of Covid-19 infection, the League of Women Voters argued Thursday in a lawsuit.
In a separate claim later in the day, groups representing black and Hispanic voters and union members sued to delay the primary until Democratic Gov. Tony Evers lifts his emergency order closing most businesses and schools and requiring most people to stay at home. They argued it is "functionally impossible" for election officials to both comply with those orders and follow the rules for running an election.
They are the third and fourth cases brought against Wisconsin election officials in the past week.
The signature suit, filed on behalf of four elderly women who live alone, asks a judge to suspend the rule for absentee ballots in the primary. It is going ahead on schedule in part because, in addition to the presidential contest, the ballot also includes races for a state Supreme Court seat and some other state and local posts that will otherwise become vacant next month.
As of Friday, six days from the deadline, nearly 800,000 absentee ballot requests had been received — meaning the share of remote votes is on course to set a record in the state.
U.S. District Judge William Griesbach says he will rule Monday on an effort by Green Bay to get the primary postponed until June 2. The city sued Tuesday, claiming that the health of poll workers, city employees and voters would be put at risk unless the election is delayed for eight weeks.
In response to a lawsuit filed by the state and national Democratic Party, a federal judge recently ruled Wisconsin must extend online registration by a dozen days, until Monday.
Two people who worked different primary polling stations in the beachfront city of Hollywood on March 17 have tested positive for coronavirus, Broward County elections officials announced Thursday.
The officials said they did not know when the volunteer election helpers got sick but that they had only limited contact with voters. One was a greeter at a precinct where 205 people cast ballots. The other checked people in at a place where just 61 votes were cast after working behind the scenes at an early voting station the previous week.
To date, Hollywood has had more confirmed coronavirus cases than any other city in Florida outside Miami. The Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections said it was unaware of any other poll workers testing positive in the state.
Republican Gov. Mike DeWine planned to sign a measure Friday extending voting by mail in the primary until April 27 and essentially quashing the governor's push for a day for balloting in person on June 2.
The GOP-majority Legislature cleared the measure this week in response to the governor calling off the March 17 voting just hours before polls opened.
The law orders the state to send postcards to all Ohioans about the changed timetable and voting method, but does not provide for sending out absentee ballot request forms automatically. It says only the disabled and homeless may vote in person on April 28.
Several civil rights groups complained the new system and tight timetable would disenfranchise thousands. Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, said he disapproved of the plan because it would "significantly reduce the time provided for Ohio to bring this primary to a close" but would work to carry it out.
The bipartisan Election Commission decided Wednesday to suspend the excuse requirement on applications to vote absentee in the primary — one of several changes to accommodate GOP Gov. Eric Holcomb's earlier decision to delay the voting from May 5 to June 2.
Hoosiers must usually stipulate they have one of 11 acceptable excuses for being unable to get to their polling place on Election Day, one of the more restrictive vote-by-mail laws in the country.
The panel also extended the absentee application deadline to May 21 and the registration deadline to May 5, and relaxed rules about staffing levels at voting sites. It said it would reconvene in four weeks to decide if the pandemic required altogether abandoning in-person primary voting.
The next contests by mail
Hawaii Democrats had planned for most of their primary to be by mail, but this week they scrapped plans for 21 polling sites across the archipelago. They also mailed out ballots to all registered voters for a third time and delayed the deadline to register to vote until primary day, April 4.
Alaska Democrats have called off in-person voting on April 4 and extended the postmark deadline on mailed-in ballots until April 10. They had already mailed those forms to every member of the party and this week made a version available for download from the party website.
Wyoming Democrats had dropped the caucus-in-person option a few weeks ago. This week they reopened, until Wednesday, the period for requesting a ballot in the mail — and postponed the deadline for getting them back to April 17.
The state will become the sixth to move its presidential voting to June 2 once Democratic Gov. Tom Wolfe signs the necessary legislation, probably later Friday. It was cleared by the Republican-majority Legislature Wednesday — not in Harrisburg but by conducting business remotely for the first time in its history.
With 186 Democratic delegates up for grabs, it is the second biggest state (after New York) that hasn't had a primary yet.
A collection of third-party candidates asked a federal judge Thursday to reduce the number of signatures required to win a spot on the November ballot, arguing the absence of people in public places makes it "virtually impossible" to circulate petitions.
In a lawsuit, they asked the court to keep the deadlines the same but trim the signature thresholds to a number prorated to the date this spring or summer when the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention rescinds the guidance recommending social distancing.
Every registered voter will receive an application in early April for voting absentee in the May 12 primary. GOP Secretary of State Mac Warner announced Thursday the state would cover the counties' mailing costs but that forwarding a mail-in ballot automatically would go against state law.
This "encourages voters to participate in the election in the safest manner possible without having to leave their house," he said. "Your ballot box is as close as your mailbox."
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