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Ranked-choice voting proves to be lightning rod issue in several states

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Bills to ban ranked-choice voting are causing passionate debate over a method to cast ballots that some say is fairer and some say is confusing and could lower voter turnout.

Ranked-choice voting allows people to rank the candidates, with “one” being their favorite. The votes are tallied in rounds.

If no candidate wins a majority of voters’ first-choices, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, according to information from FairVote, an organization that advocates for ranked-choice voting. Voters who picked that candidate as number one have their vote count for their second choice. The process continues until a candidate gets a majority of the vote, and they’re declared the winner.

Idaho, Tennessee, Montana and Florida have banned ranked-choice voting in their states. Maine was the first to conduct a statewide election using the counting method in 2018. Alaska used ranked-choice voting first in a statewide special election in 2022 to replace the late U.S. Rep. Don Young and again a few weeks later in its general election.

Iowa is one of several states considering banning ranked-choice voting this year. The ban is part of a sweeping election bill that also eliminates drop boxes for absentee ballots. House and Senate subcommittee meetings were packed with people asking lawmakers to reconsider banning ranked-choice voting.

“Just keep the conversation going,” said David J. Gion, executive director of Better Ballot Iowa, a group that advocates for ranked-choice voting. “There is no reason to stifle the conversation and ban ranked-choice voting today.”

Gion said about 90% of Iowans do not know what ranked-choice voting is. And when they learn about it, they are generally supportive.

Rachel Hutchinson, a senior policy analyst for FairVote, told The Center Square in an interview that 50 cities and counties use ranked-choice voting. A task force in Illinois is studying it, she said.

“I think that’s because people are waking up and seeing that it is our “choose one” elections that are depriving voters of meaningful choices, creating these increasingly toxic campaign cycles, advancing candidates who lack broad support and really just leaving voters feeling like our voices aren’t heard,” Hutchinson said.

The Foundation for Government Accountability calls ranked-choice voting a disaster in a research paper published in October.

“While there’s some that think ranked-choice voting has this ability to solve, maybe whatever ails our political system now, if you’re dissatisfied with the individuals running at the top of the ticket, in reality it doesn’t actually have real bearing on what we see unfolding in state capitals across the country, which is really not the type of drama we see in Washington, D.C.,” Brian Sikma, senior fellow at the organization, told The Center Square in an interview. “I think it’s really an interesting idea that evolved into maybe we can use this to solve problems in our political system, but in reality, the problem that it is trying to solve doesn’t really exist, particularly at the state and local level.”

Ranked-choice voting is confusing and sometimes awards candidates that did not receive the most votes, the Foundation for Government Accountability said.

The research paper cites Alaska’s special congressional election, which Democrat Mary Peltola won.

“Republican candidates received 60 percent of the vote in the first round, but the Democrat won because of the ranked-choice voting process,”the report read.

Hutchinson said Alaska’s general elections were an overall success.

“I think the results of the election were really consistent with Alaska’s independent streak,” Hutchinson said. “Alaska elected a conservative Republican governor, a moderate Republican senator and a moderate Democratic congresswoman,” Hutchinson said.

And she said voters do not find it confusing. Eighty-five percent of Alaskans said it was simple their first time.

“After New York used it for the first time in 2021, 95% said it was simple,” Hutchinson said.

While some state legislatures are considering bans, Oregon and Nevada are considering ballot measures to implement ranked-choice voting. Groups in Alaska are petitioning for ballot measures to overturn ranked-choice voting.