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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House Democrats on Monday pressed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy about changes made to the Postal Service under his tenure that have caused a national outcry about the agency's ability to handle the expected flood of mail ballots in the November election.
DeJoy affirmed that USPS has not coordinated with President Trump or his re-election campaign on recent changes to the Postal Service. However, in communications with the Postal Service Board of Governors, DeJoy had asked the Trump campaign to cease attacks on the Postal Service and absentee voting.
"I have put words around to different people that this is not helpful," said DeJoy.
In the contentious hearing convened by the Oversight and Reform Committee, Democrats attacked DeJoy by highlighting his financial contributions to Trump's campaign while also connecting the timing between DeJoy's appointment as postmaster general to a downward spike in mail service.
Democratic Rep. Steven Lynch did not mince words when questioning DeJoy's actions during his 70-day tenure, including removal of blue mail boxes and mail sorting machines across the country, slowdown of mail delivery, and not allowing mail carriers to work overtime.
"After 240 years of patriotic service delivering the mail, how can one person screw this up in just a few weeks?" asked Lynch.
The Massachusetts lawmaker continued by accusing DeJoy of making these changes at USPS for one of two reasons, either by gross incompetence or to deliberately dismantle the agency's long history of providing vital mail services to every American.
As expected, the Republican minority largely defended DeJoy by focusing on how many of the changes were in place before DeJoy joined the agency. They also repeatedly pointed out that USPS has approximately $10 billion in cash on hand, which they considered more than enough funding to handle the onslaught of election mail expected ahead of the November election.
DeJoy largely responded to Democrats' accusations as unfair and inaccurate, claiming changes at USPS would not impact the November election and that he has not and does not intend to coordinate election mail processes with the White House.
Emphasizing the critical context surrounding recent changes at USPS, Democratic Rep. Gerald Connolly of Virginia pushed DeJoy to acknowledge how the ongoing global pandemic and a divisive presidential election could cause mass alarm to Americans who rely on USPS for vital mail service for not just election mail but medications, bills and Social Security checks.
Republicans criticized Democrats' questioning of DeJoy, with Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina accusing them of pushing another "false narrative," following Robert Mueller's investigation and House impeachment of President Trump earlier this year.
Republicans were also quick to criticize what they say was Democrats' hasty approach to passing an emergency funding bill over the weekend that allocated $25 billion to the Postal Service. DeJoy confirmed he was not personally consulted about the bill by Democrats.
The bill is unlikely to pass the Republican-held Senate.
Monday's hearing was significantly more disorganized than Friday's Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing. Multiple members experienced technical difficulties when joining today's hearing remotely.
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Republicans in Illinois are accusing the state's Democratic governor of seeking to promote election fraud in November.
The allegation is the centerpiece of a lawsuit the Cook County GOP filed in federal court Monday against Gov. J.B. Pritzker. The Chicago Republicans contend the governor, by promoting the use of mail-in voting, is attempting to put as many ballots into play as possible in order to sway the election.
The litigation is a reversal of the normal narrative about courthouse battles over voting this year: Democrats suing GOP state governments for not doing enough to make voting easier during the coronavirus pandemic. It also amplifies President Trump's unfounded allegation that mail voting guarantees widespread election theft.
The suit alleges Pritzker "snuck through" several election easements that invite widespread voter fraud, mainly by allowing ballot applications to be automatically sent to all active voters.
GOP political rights are violated by "a partisan voting scheme that is designed to harvest Democratic ballots, dilute Republican ballots, and, if the election still doesn't turn out the way he wants it, to generate enough Democratic ballots after election day to sway the result," the lawsuit says of the governor.
The nation's fifth most populous state is the most reliably blue piece of the Midwest's electoral map. Its 20 electoral votes are a near lock for Joe Biden, who stands to extend the Democrats' presidential winning streak in the state to eight. So the lawsuit's success would mainly improve GOP prospects in down-ballot contests, including a House race in suburban Chicago, where Republican Rep. Rodney Davis is being vigorously challenged.
Passed in May by the solidly Democratic General Assembly and signed in June, the laws will:
- Deliver vote-by-mail applications to approximately 5 million voters across the state who have cast ballots in recent elections
- Expand voting hours
- Allow for curbside voting
- Designate Election Day a state holiday
Illinois already has one of the most liberal vote-by-mail laws in the country, with no excuse needed to apply for an absentee ballot — which Republicans argue makes the new measures unnecessary.
The suit also takes issue with the deadline for mailed ballots, claiming it contributes to the potential for fraud. Ballots submitted or postmarked by midnight on Election Day will still be counted even if they arrive at election offices two weeks later.
Republicans assert that Illinois is woefully unprepared to expand its vote-by-mail system so drastically, citing the state's 2017 experience establishing automatic voter registration that was fraught with problems. The program mistakenly registered over 500 people who were not U.S. citizens as well as 4,700 ineligible 16-year-olds.
The suit says the new laws do not comport with mail ballot recommendations set by the Postal Service. It recommends voters mail their ballots at least one week before the due date; however, in Illinois eligible voters can still request a ballot until Oct. 29, only three business days before Election Day.
Republicans even go as far as referencing Illinois' joblessness woes, by pointing to the 120,000 cases of unemployment fraud experienced during the coronavirus pandemic as evidence the state is "one of the most inept in the Union and the public has no reason to expect a vote-by-mail system to work any more smoothly than a variety of projects Illinois has stumbled through in recent years."
The lawsuit asks the court to stop the laws from taking effect. It was filed against Pritzker, the State Board of Elections, Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough and the Chicago Board of Election commissioners on behalf of the Cook County GOP by the Liberty Justice Center, a conservative legal enterprise.
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