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Opinion >  Column

Spin Control: Ranked-choice voting – boost or bust for elections?

Voters line up to deposit their ballots into a drop box at the Spokane Library South Hill branch in October 2020.   (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Voters line up to deposit their ballots into a drop box at the Spokane Library South Hill branch in October 2020.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

There’s a common refrain from voters throughout the ages when looking at their choices – whether they are stepping into a polling booth or opening their mail-in ballot – that there’s a long list of candidates, with one or two they really like but who don’t have a chance of winning.

Or they look at a short list with no choices they like.

If it’s the former, the theory goes, one of two things happens. They don’t vote because they’ve been told their candidate doesn’t have a chance. Or they vote for the candidate, who doesn’t win, and they’re unhappy with the eventual winner because they don’t feel their voice has been heard.

If it’s the latter situation, another theory goes, one of two things happens. They don’t vote and turnout goes down to the point where a majority of a minority elects someone to office. Or they make a “lesser of two evils” choice, and even if that person is elected, they’re unhappy as soon as he or she does something they don’t like.

Some good government types, as well as a passel of legislators, think the solution to both of these situations is “ranked-choice voting.”

Under that system, a voter can mark a ballot for more than one candidate in order of preferences. So one could mark a Libertarian as No. 1, a Green Party candidate as No. 2, a Reform Party candidate as No. 3 and a member of a major party No. 4. Under a bill sent to the full state House of Representatives recently, a voter could choose up to five candidates in order of preference.

If, when all the ballots are counted, no candidate has a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and the ballots that had him or her as No. 1 are recalculated so that each of those votes are awarded to the candidate marked as a second choice. Still no majority winner? The candidate with the next fewest votes is eliminated and his or her votes awarded to the candidate marked as the second choice. And so on.

Eventually, they get to a point where someone has to have a majority, and is declared the winner.

Supporters of ranked-choice voting, including Rep. Kirsten Harris-Talley, a Hillman City Democrat who is the prime sponsor of a bill with the somewhat optimistic title of “Increasing representation and voter participation in local elections,” called it “an opportunity to nurture democracy” for cities, counties, school districts and other local jurisdictions that choose to go to ranked-choice voting.

She told the House State Government Committee earlier this month it would increase the visibility and viability of diverse candidates.

Spokane City Councilwoman Kate Burke also extolled the virtues of the system, which she noted the council has recently endorsed.

“Ranked-choice voting is simply the logical extension of the same idea and system that we have now,” she said. “It helps voters have their vote actually matter.”

Lest anyone think this is solely the wishful thinking of deep blue progressives, Rep. Jim Walsh, an Aberdeen Republican with dark red bona fides, voted for the bill in committee. He had some concerns, but thought it might help all sorts of minority groupings of voters, even “conservative candidates in deep blue districts.”

But after last year’s election, which experts say was possibly the most secure in the nation’s history and yet a significant number of voters insist was stolen from then-President Donald Trump, one has to wonder about the accuracy of those prognostications.

Suppose, for example, the leading candidate in a five-way race had 40% of the vote at the end of the first round of voting and the second candidate had 35%. As the fifth-, fourth- and third-place candidates are eliminated, most of those second-, third- or fourth-choice votes go to the second-place candidate, who pulls ahead and eventually wins. Are voters any more likely to be happy?

What about the candidate who was in first place at the end of what we generally think of as “the real” election? Is he or she likely to go quiet into that good night?

This recalculating could mean the results aren’t known until Christmas. Will people sit patiently by? Seems like last year, not knowing the results of the presidential election for almost a week had parts of the nation in an uproar.

The bill leaves the decision to go to ranked-choice voting up to local jurisdictions. It wouldn’t be used for federal elections or – and this is curious for any legislator who thinks it’s a great idea – state races. But it could set up a real headache for county elections officials if the city of Spokane opts for ranked-choice voting for its municipal offices but Spokane Public Schools doesn’t, and the city of Spokane Valley sticks with the current format while two of three Valley school districts decide to go ranked-choice.

Under certain scenarios, ranked-choice voting could lead to more problems for elections officials and less confidence in its results.

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