Op-Ed: Ranked-choice voting, coming to a town near you?

David Goodman | October 8, 2021 | Opinion, Politics
We should be proud that New Jersey is fighting voter suppression with automatic voter registration and early voting laws. Ranked-choice voting for local elections should be next
David Goodman

Let’s start with some numbers and then a story about everyday voters experiencing real election choices to overcome the “lesser-of-two-evils” gloom.

We’ll get a glimpse of what could be in New Jersey’s future. The momentum of recent election reforms like automatic voter registration, early voting and a push for same-day registration can be our platform for bringing ranked-choice voting (RCV) to New Jersey’s towns.

To date, over 9.3 million U.S. voters have experienced RCV or will do so in their next elections. Ranked-choice voting is currently used in more than 26 cities and two states (Maine and Alaska). Since 2004, when San Francisco first used it to elect municipal offices, there have been 494 RCV elections across these 26 municipalities, with over 20 million ranked-choice ballots cast.

A quite revolution in voter choice is emerging from the shadows. A breakthrough happened this past June with New York City’s Democratic Primary using RCV for the first time. Despite glitches and outright incompetence by the city’s board of elections, a Washington Post editorial declared “Ranked-choice voting works.”

Behind those headlines are the experiences of everyday New Yorkers. Most loved RCV and the chance to choose their favorite candidates without fearing a “spoiler” effect. Listening to their words tells the story.

Good for New Jersey?

Could something similar work for us in New Jersey? And if so, what’s the best path forward?

Let’s review the basics:

  • Ranked-choice voting allows voters the option to rank candidates in order of preference: one, two, three and so forth. If your vote cannot help your top choice win, your vote counts for your next choice.
  • Ranked-choice voting is a way to ensure elections are fair for all voters. Voters pick a first-choice candidate and have the option to rank backup candidates in order of their choice: second, third and so on. If a candidate receives more than half of the first choices, that candidate wins, just like in any other election. However, if there is no majority winner after counting first choices, the race is decided by an “instant runoff.” The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and voters who picked that candidate as No. 1 will have their votes count for their next choice. This process continues until either you have a majority winner or a candidate wins with more than half the votes.

The claim that “the RCV process is hard to understand” is simply not true. It may be true for convincing politicians and policymakers, who need to understand all the nitty-gritty as such a change is being debated, because it’s new and unfamiliar, but once it’s adopted, voters have no problem understanding how to cast their ballot. The experience of everyday New Yorkers confirms that. FairVote, a national RCV policy organization, has data from decades of usage that shows ballot error is no greater with RCV than with traditional plurality voting. In simple terms, average people rank things all the time: “Get me chocolate; and if they don’t have that, then strawberry, and if they don’t have that, then vanilla.”

Those facts did not stop the Massachusetts governor, Charlie Baker, from blurring the lines in 2020, explaining his opposition to a ranked-choice voting as “too complicated.” Add to that the perceived threat to their electoral path by members of the Massachusetts Legislature; voters there were turned off and delivered a crushing 10-percentage-point defeat to a well-financed ranked-choice voting ballot initiative.

How do we get a win in New Jersey? Straight-up statewide reform, as Massachusetts illustrates, will not be easy. Yes, two shining examples — Maine (2018) and Alaska (2020) — resulted from voter-approved ballot initiatives, but that’s nearly impossible in New Jersey. For us the bar is very high and a referendum first requires the Legislature’s approval.

A need for legislation

So we return to the local example begun in the boroughs of New York City. Polls showed local support for this reform to be high. The company Emerson Polling found ranked-choice voting “a popular and growing way of running elections,” both in New York City and elsewhere. We need legislation that gives our towns a chance to experience this for local elective offices. We need to meet people where they are.

Bills for instant runoffs have been introduced to do this — A-4744 and S-2992. Known as the New Jersey Municipal Instant Runoff Act, they are a good start but need to be improved. As written, these bills allow the use of instant runoff (or ranked-choice) voting in local single-seat elections. That needs to be changed to become multiseat elections. Instead of just using instant runoffs, say, for mayor, voters should get to choose members of their town council too. Currently, A-4744 and S-2992 cover only nonpartisan municipalities. That also needs to be changed to all municipalities.

Those changes are not impossible. They can happen in committee hearings on both bills during the lame-duck session of the Legislature, post-Election Day 2021. New Jersey voters need to raise their voices; call on their state representatives; and write letters to editors and use social media to demand action.

Ranked-choice voting is pro-democracy. It’s about voting rights and voter choice and not a partisan issue. As we lament the rise of voter suppression and disenfranchisement laws, in state after state, we can be proud that New Jersey is heading in the opposite direction with automatic voter and early voting laws. Ranked-choice voting for local elections in New Jersey’s towns should be next.

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