Ranked-choice voting is having a moment. The use of ranked-choice systems has grown in the last year, as has interest in implementing them more widely. In 2023, legislatures in at least 14 states will consider bills that would shift them to this increasingly popular model.
In ranked-choice elections, voters mark their first choices on their ballots, then rank the remaining candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes on the first count, the election moves to an instant runoff. The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and ballots cast for that candidate are recast for voters’ second choices. The process is repeated until a candidate achieves a majority.
Advocates of ranked-choice voting have long argued that the system benefits moderate candidates who do not pander to either party’s fringes and instead seek to appeal to the greatest number of people.
State legislators from both major parties appear to be listening to that argument.
According to an NBC News review, lawmakers in 14 states have introduced, filed, or prefiled 27 bills that propose various iterations of ranked-choice voting in the first two weeks of 2023.
Some bills propose implementing the system for statewide and federal elections, while others propose limiting its use to primary elections. Some states’ bills propose ranked-choice voting only for local elections, while others propose a temporary pilot system that would test the use of ranked-choice voting for a set number of years.
The variety and quantity highlight a growing trend in elections across the country: ranked-choice voting is clearly on the rise.
“We’ve already seen a lot of state legislation this year, and we’re going to see a lot more,” said Rob Richie, president and CEO of FairVote, a national nonpartisan organisation that has worked for decades to advance the use of ranked-choice voting in the United States. “Some of it will pass.”
In Virginia, for example, four state lawmakers from both major parties introduced bills last week to advance ranked-choice voting in the state. Two would allow it for presidential primaries beginning in 2024, one would allow it for all primary elections, and one would expand the state’s current ranked-choice pilot programme to include all local elections.
Virginia lawmakers enacted a pilot programme for ranked-choice voting in local elections through 2031 in 2020, and only a few municipalities have used it so far. The state GOP chose a gubernatorial nominee through a ranked-choice voting system at its state convention in 2021. Supporters of the system argue that it makes it easier for a candidate with broad crossover appeal to advance; the winner, Glenn Youngkin, went on to win the general election.
“Advocates from all over the country point to the Republican nominating contest in Virginia as a prominent and successful test case. That’s significant because it’s sometimes portrayed as a progressive issue when it isn’t. It really benefits both parties, and that’s such a good example of it being used on the right,” said Liz White, executive director of UpVote Virginia, a nonpartisan election reform organisation that supports ranked-choice voting.
“It appears that both parties in Virginia are steadily moving down a road toward accepting RCV on a larger scale,” White said.
In Connecticut, state Rep. Keith Denning, a Democrat, introduced legislation to establish a ranked-choice voting system for all state and federal elections, and Rep. David Michel, also a Democrat, introduced legislation to allow ranked-choice voting in all local and municipal elections.
Legislators in Oklahoma and Montana introduced bills that would allow officials to implement ranked-choice voting in all elections, and Wyoming legislators proposed establishing a pilot programme for its use in local and municipal elections in the state.
Bills in Maryland and Massachusetts would allow specific towns and cities to use ranked-choice voting in their elections, while bills in Missouri and New Hampshire would establish rules for ranked-choice voting, potentially paving the way for future legislation authorising its use.
A bill in Oregon proposes using ranked-choice voting in federal and state elections, a bill in New Jersey proposes using it in all state elections, and a bill in New York would convert all nonpartisan primary elections to a ranked-choice voting system.
Furthermore, local ballot measures have already been placed and are scheduled to take effect in 2023, giving voters direct control over whether ranked-choice voting is implemented in their local elections. These are in Redondo Beach, California, and Burlington, Vermont. Both ballot measures are set to be voted on in March.
Policymakers in Arizona are also considering ranked-choice voting as a means of combating extremism.
“This is going to be a year of progress,” FairVote’s Richie predicted.
Ranked-choice voting supporters, like Richie, are ecstatic about the progress and continue to argue that the system improves politics by incentivizing candidates to avoid pandering to their bases and going negative. They claim this is because, given the way most ranked-choice voting models work, those candidates must continue to appeal to voters as a second, third, or even fourth choice in elections.
“It’s very simple where the virtues come from. If you only have one option, your open engagement with a pool of candidates is limited to that single option. When you align yourself with a single option, you stop thinking. When you’re given the option to consider multiple candidates, you increase the number of reasons for engagement and conversation.”
The latest round of proposed legislation comes after a year of notable and growing enthusiasm for ranked-choice voting. According to FairVote, in 2022, lawmakers in 25 states introduced legislation to advance or expand ranked-choice voting, with bills enacted in six states. Voters in eight jurisdictions approved ballot measures to implement ranked-choice voting. This included Nevada, where voters approved a citizen-led constitutional amendment to implement ranked-choice voting in all statewide general elections except the presidential election. To take effect, the measure must be re-enacted in 2024, according to Nevada law.
In 2022, Alaska became the second state to use ranked-choice voting in state and federal elections (Maine has used the system in state and federal elections since 2018), and the number of cities and towns that switched to ranked-choice voting increased to more than 50.
Some of the system’s purported strengths, such as the rejection of polarising candidates, were realised in many states. In Alaska, for example, where ranked-choice voting was used for the first time in the state’s Senate and congressional races, voters chose incumbent Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mary Peltola over more extreme candidates.
“Ranked-choice voting forces candidates to form coalitions and appeal to people they aren’t used to appealing to,” said White of UpVote Virginia. “It also forces voters to look at candidates they might not have looked at otherwise.”