Ranked Choice Voting Won Big in the 2022 Mid-Terms

Howie Hawkins

Posted January 5, 2023

Howie Hawkins, right, on tour in Maine in support of Lisa Savage, independent U.S. Senate candidate from Maine in 2020. Original here.

Ranked Choice Voting won 8 out of 10 ballot measures on November 8.

Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) is an alternative to the plurality winner voting system prevalent in the United States. It provides more representative outcomes, increases voter participation, discourages negative campaigning, eliminates the vote-splitting spoiler problem that encourages lesser-evil voting, and lowers the entry barriers for the election of women, people of color, and minor party and independent candidates.

RCV for single-seat elections is sometimes called Instant Runoff Voting. Voters rank the candidates in order of preference. If nobody wins a majority in the first round, the last place candidate is eliminated and their votes are transferred to the second choice on their ballots. That process of instant runoff voting continues until a candidate receives a majority of votes. 

Proportional RCV is used to elect legislative bodies by proportional representation. Voters rank the candidates in a multi-seat district in order of preference. The winning threshold is derived from a mathematical formula that determines the minimum number of votes required to fill all seats. For example, three seats requires 25% + 1 of the total vote and nine seats requires 10% + 1. In the process of determining the winners, first the excess votes above the winning threshold are transferred to their second choices and then the last place candidate is eliminated and their votes transferred to the second choices. These rounds of counting continue until all the seats are filled.

RCV in single-member districts won in Fort Collins CO, Evanston IL, and Multnomah County OR.

Significantly, proportional RCV (RCV in multi-member districts to create proportional representation) won in Ojai CA, Portland ME, and Portland OR.

The move to proportional representation was led by people of color in Ojai CA and Portland OR. 

The Ojai CA ballot measure came due to the threat of a voting rights lawsuit by Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, which fights for the voting rights of Mexican-Americans in the Southwest. Both the at-large and district plurality systems Ojai had used resulted in the under-representation of Latinos.

In Portland OR, Black, Latino, Indigenous, and Asian people led the campaign for proportional RCV to replace the at-large plurality system that had resulted in the under-representation of people of color on Portland’s city council.

Proportional RCV also was adopted in three cities in 2020 and 2021 in response to threatened or actual lawsuits by people of color over their exclusion from winner-take-all plurality elections whether district or at-large. In Albany Ca, it was Asian exclusion. In Palm Desert CA it was Latino exclusion. In Eastpointe MI, it was African-American exclusion,

In Seattle WA, voters had two questions. One was whether to change the voting system. The other was whether to change the system to RCV or Approval Voting. On the first question, change beat the status quo by a narrow 51%-49% majority.

On the second question, RCV beat Approval Voting 76% to 24%. 

In Nevada, an initiative for RCV in all local, state, and federal elections passed 53% to 47%. The initiative also replaces party primaries with one top-five primary where the top five vote getters proceed to an RCV general election. RCV is good. Top five is bad. Top-five (and top-four in AK and top-two in CA and WA) undermines parties by taking away the right of their own members to nominate their own candidates for the general election. For smaller independent parties like the Green Party, it often means they have no candidate who advances from the primary to the general election, while major parties often have multiple candidates in the general election conducted by RCV.

RCV lost in Clark County WA, a purple county, and San Juan County WA, a strong blue county.

We went into the 2020 election with RCV in 24 jurisdictions. By the time we went into the 2022 elections, RCV had more than doubled to 2 states, 1 county, and 53 municipalities. Coming out of the 2022 elections, RCV is now in 3 states, 2 counties, and 78 municipalities. The biggest jump came from Nevada where 17 counties, 19 municipalities, and 20 school districts will now use RCV.

RCV is a reform that frees Green Party and other independent left candidates from the spoiler problem in which progressive-minded people who prefer the left candidate often vote for a lesser evil Democrat because they are afraid that splitting the center and left vote between a Democrat and left candidate will result in a far-right Republican win by a plurality.

Proportional RCV also eliminates gerrymandering. Gerrymandered single-member districts create mostly non-competitive, one-party legislative districts at the local, state, and federal levels. Single-seat RCV does not eliminate this problem. But when representation is proportional to the vote for each party’s candidates in proportional RCV in multi-seat districts, where multi-seat district lines are drawn has little effect.

The significance of fighting for proportional RCV for legislative bodies is shown by the 2022 elections in Australia. Greens received 12% of the national vote for the Australian House and 15% of the national vote for the Senate in 2022. In the House, which is elected by single-seat RCV, Greens have only four seats in the 151-member House. In the Senate, which is elected by multi-seat proportional RCV, the Greens have their proportional share in the Senate: 12 of 76 Senators.

RCV is a reform we are winning. We should prioritize organizing for it, and especially proportional RCV, because it opens the door to an inclusive multi-party electoral system where independent left parties can get their fair and proportional share of representation in legislative bodies at every level. 

Proportional RCV for the House, along with single-seat RCV for Senate elections, is proposed in the Fair Representation Act (H.R. 3863). Unfortunately, only a few Congressional progressives are supporting this bill so far, as I discuss in this article that appeared in Ralph Nader’s Capitol Hill Citizen, “MIA on Ranked Choice Voting and Proportional Representation: AOC and the Progressive Caucus Punt on Electoral Reform.” We should make this bill an issue and push them into becoming co-sponsors.