Law & Principles

Ray Carter | September 12, 2023

Experts warn against ranked-choice voting

Ray Carter

To eliminate the expense of runoff elections, some officials have advocated for Oklahoma to adopt ranked-choice voting, a process that allows voters to rank all candidates in order of preference with votes reallocated until one candidate receives a majority.

But experts from across the nation, speaking at a legislative study, warned Oklahoma lawmakers against adopting that change.

“What makes a system democratic is that people can understand how it works,” said Trent England, executive director of Save our States and a fellow at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. “What makes an election system democratic is that people understand what their vote means, how their vote will be counted, how their vote will contribute to the result. And in ranked-choice voting, you see very clearly that’s not the case.”

“Why in the world would you want a system that a human cannot tally the votes, cannot do a proper audit?” said state Sen. Mike Shower of Alaska, a state that implemented ranked-choice voting for the first time last year. “It is so complicated we have to ‘trust the system’—the computers—to tally the votes.”

In Oklahoma general elections, the person who receives the most votes wins. In races with more than two candidates, that can mean a candidate may win a race without receiving majority support, as happened when Democrat Brad Henry was elected governor in 2002 with only plurality support.

In Oklahoma primaries, a runoff election is held between the top two vote-getters if no candidate receives majority support.

Cindy Alexander, an official with Rank the Vote, and other supporters of ranked-choice voting, say it will save taxpayer money by eliminating runoff elections in Oklahoma.

In 2014, Alexander noted the state government spent between $800,000 and $1 million to conduct 18 runoff elections and that there were additional costs for county governments.

Supporters of ranked-choice voting also note that runoffs typically draw fewer voters than the initial primary election.

In the 2022 Republican primary runoffs for state treasurer and state superintendent, participation in the runoff was 20 percent and 19 percent lower, respectively, than in the primary election.

In a ranked-choice voting system, voters designate their first choice in a race, their second choice, and so on down the ballot. If no candidate receives majority support, the second-choice votes of the candidate who finishes last are reallocated to the remaining candidates. If no candidate clears 50 percent of the vote at that time, the process repeats again and again until one candidate has received a majority.

Ranked-choice voting “is very much driven by left-wing, Democrat-aligned donors and activist groups.” —Scott Walter, president of the Capital Research Center

But experts warned ranked-choice elections are confusing to voters and difficult to administer.

“When you look at a ballot for ranked-choice voting in Alaska, it looks like an engineering chart,” Shower said.

With ranked-choice voting, a ballot may run for several pages. Shower said 11 percent of ballots in Alaska were spoiled because of voter confusion under ranked-choice voting when the normal rate is 3 percent or less. Shower said the rate of spoiled ballots in other states with ranked-choice voting runs as high as 30 percent for some demographic groups.

“I believe this is what in essence becomes a voter-suppression scheme, and perhaps the most elegant one we have ever seen,” Shower said.

Oklahoma State Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax told lawmakers that Oklahoma would have to replace all state election machines if ranked-choice voting is adopted.

“Our current voting system, which we’ve been using since the 2012 elections, is not capable of accommodating ranked-choice voting or instant-runoff voting,” Ziriax said.

Ziriax said swift reporting of election results increases public confidence in the system and warned that vote counting will take “much longer” under a ranked-choice voting system.

“I think the days of knowing the election results on election night would be long gone,” Ziriax said.

Shower noted it took two weeks to determine the outcome of a statewide election conducted in Alaska last year using ranked-choice voting.

And voters may have legitimate reason to doubt the reported outcome when it finally arrives.

In Alameda, California, academics studying elections identified a programming error that caused ranked-choice votes to be wrongly allocated. None of the candidates caught the problem because the system was so complex, England noted.

After the results were retabulated, officials determined the wrong candidate had been declared the winner of an Oakland school board race. The wrong candidate was seated on the board before it was determined the outcome was wrongly decided. The correct winner was not seated until four months after the election.

“Ranked-choice voting makes elections much less transparent,” England said. “It increases the opportunity to make mistakes and makes mistakes much more difficult to find.”

Supporters tout ranked-choice voting as a nonpartisan, good-government reform. But Shower noted the practical effect of ranked-choice voting has been to make it easier for Democrats to win races in areas where the local populace leans Republican.

Scott Walter, president of the Capital Research Center, which tracks political spending, said the financial backers of ranked-choice voting efforts are overwhelmingly left-wing.

“No one should imagine that ranked-choice voting is something that simply sprung up from the grassroots of conservatives or Republicans,” Walter said. “It is very much driven by left-wing, Democrat-aligned donors and activist groups.”

Ranked-choice voting has been tried repeatedly since the 1800s, but its adoption is typically followed by its swift repeal, England said.

Currently, Maine uses ranked-choice voting in federal and some state elections, and the process is used in some local elections in about a dozen other states.

Alaska started using ranked-choice voting in all state and federal elections last year, but a serious repeal effort is underway. Some polls indicate repeal is likely.

In contrast, five states have banned ranked-choice voting: Florida, Tennessee, Idaho, Montana, and South Dakota. And legislation to ban it has advanced, but fell short of becoming law, in four other states: Arizona, Missouri, North Dakota, and Texas.

England said Oklahoma lawmakers should join the list of those who have banned ranked-choice voting.

“This is a system that, again, it makes voting harder for voters,” England said. “It makes elections harder to run. And it makes the results harder to trust.”

“It’s not simple. It’s not easy to understand,” Shower said. “And it disenfranchises many groups.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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