Ranked Choice Voting in Washington State: Then and Now

How does Ranked Choice Voting Help?

  • A 2020 study by Eamon McGinn of the University of Technology Sydney finds that in debates for ranked choice voting races, civility was improved with candidates substituting positive or neutral words for negative words.
  • A 2018 exit poll of Santa Fe voters found that 67% of respondents believed the tone of their first mayoral election with RCV was more positive than prior mayoral elections. Only 3% of respondents said it was more negative.
  • A 2016 report explores how RCV might reduce legislative polarization by allowing space for moderate, conservative, liberal, and other voters to elect candidates in proportion to their overall numbers in the electorate.
  • The Eagleton Poll at Rutgers University conducted two polls — one in 2013 and another in 2014 — that explore the impact of RCV on city elections in the United States. In both surveys, more respondents in cities using RCV reported candidates spent less time criticizing opponents than in cities that did not use RCV. More respondents in cities using RCV reported fewer negative campaigns than in cities that did not use RCV.
  • A 2020 study by RepresentWomen finds better overall electoral outcomes for women and people of color in jurisdictions that have implemented RCV. Over the last decade, women have won 48% of all municipal ranked choice elections. As of April 2020, nearly half of all mayors (46%) and 49% of all city council seats decided by RCV are held by women.
  • A 2019 report on racial minority voting rights shows that people of color hold office at a higher rate under RCV than under the prior system, and that people of color win office more often since the adoption of RCV.
  • A 2018 paper by Sarah John, Haley Smith, and Elizabeth Zack shows that California cities which adopted RCV saw an increase in the percentage of candidates of color running for office and increases in the probability of female candidates and female candidates of color winning office. (The author refers to the reform as “the alternative vote” or “AV” which is synonymous with ranked choice voting.) Learn more from this write-up by author Sarah John.

Prior Use of Ranked Choice Voting in Pierce County

  • No data on “why” voters did not like RCV: Unfortunately, the answers to the survey question on why voters did not like RCV was not reported and reported as not available in response to a 2018 Freedom of Information request.
  • Unreliable survey methodology: Subjects were not selected at random. People responding self-selected from those voters using mail-in/absentee ballots or who choose to respond at polling places and could return it if they wanted. Social science research suggests folks with negative experiences are highly likely to give feedback while far fewer people with a positive experience share theirs.
  • Voting took too long: In 2008 Pierce County, the election technology vendor required use of two separate ballots, one for RCV and another for non RCV contests and this generated voter unhappiness. Dual ballots, coupled with reducing the number of polling places, contributed to long lines at polling places on election day. With improvements made since 2008, many election technology vendors today no longer have constraints requiring separate ballots. RCV contests do require a larger area on a ballot to record voters’ ranked choices, and any ballot with many contests (ranked choice or otherwise) can potentially require multiple pages.

CLAIM: “Top-Two” primaries remove the need for RCV

  • “Top Two” can eliminate a party from being represented in a general election: The Lieutenant Governor race in Washington in 2020 had 11 candidates in the primary, 5 Republicans and 4 Democrats and 2 Libertarians, that resulted in 2 Democratic candidates selected (Heck/Liias) in the “top two” primary, which left the Republican party having to campaign using the write-in method for their candidate. In 2016, there were 5 candidates for Treasurer of Washington, 2 Republicans and 3 Democrats. Although the three Democrats received 51.6% of the primary vote, the Republicans finished first and second and made it to the general election. These are examples of “spoiler candidates” in primary elections and would not happen with use of RCV.
  • Different voters participate in two elections: Two-round runoff elections result in a different group of voters participating in the final round than the first one. Primary elections often have fewer voters overall compared to general elections, and primary voters may be less representative of the populations they represent. Under RCV, the same group of voters can participate in every round. Some voters, however, may only rank some of the candidates. If each candidate ranked is eliminated during the count, such a ballot becomes inactive. Even when considering the drop-off in voters between rounds in an RCV election, RCV still outperforms two-round runoff elections both in final round turnout and representativeness of the final round.
  • “Top Two” nullifies minorities from electing a candidate of their choosing: Yakima County has ongoing review of concerns that the current “Top Two” method violates the Voting Rights Act. A commissioned study has identified RCV as the best alternative for Yakima County.

CLAIM: RCV was costly to implement

  • Voting equipment costs: In 2008 many election technology vendors were not capable of supporting RCV, but many now do. A November 2020 assessment of voting systems certified for use in Washington⁵ was conducted by the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center. Based on 2020 data from Verified Voting, the assessment reported 22 of the 39 counties in Washington use voting systems capable of RCV elections. The remaining 17 counties (including King, Pierce, Snohomish, and others) would require their current election technology vendors to add RCV capabilities, and to have both the Federal Election Assistance Commission (EAC) and Washington Secretary of State office to certify such systems. Depending upon the specific current voting systems in use within each county, some can adopt RCV without additional costs while others will need to procure budget for updated certified voting systems.
  • Single vs. Multiple Ballots: In 2008 Pierce County, the election technology vendor required use of two separate ballots, one for RCV and another for non RCV contests. This generated increased costs for printing, mailing, and staffing. With improvements made since 2008, many election technology vendors today no longer have constraints requiring separate ballots.
  • Pierce County Overspent in 2008: In 2008, RCV was relatively new to voting technology vendors and voters. More recent budget forecasts from other parts of the country are significantly less as compared to 2008.
  • Did not count savings opportunities: While Pierce County still had primary elections in 2008, RCV offers an opportunity to eliminate primary elections for local races and provide savings to both local counties responsible for administering such elections but also to political parties and candidates by only having to spend on one campaign vs. two. Not all election costs are incurred by the local election departments, reducing primary and general elections to a single election for other government entities like Port Commission, Parks Departments, and School Boards can also save money.

CLAIM: Political parties did not like outcomes

Summary

Footnotes

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Experienced technology leader, FairVote volunteer, Open Source Election Technology Foundation Contributor.

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Eric Bidstrup

Eric Bidstrup

Experienced technology leader, FairVote volunteer, Open Source Election Technology Foundation Contributor.

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