Law & Principles

Ray Carter | April 26, 2024

Senate sends ranked-choice voting ban to Stitt

Ray Carter

Legislation that would prohibit the use of ranked-choice voting in Oklahoma elections has been sent to Gov. Kevin Stitt.

“For the security, for the validity of our elections, we need to have a uniform system,” said state Sen. Brent Howard, R-Altus.

In a ranked-choice election, voters cast ballots to 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, the process repeats again and again until one candidate has received a majority.

Where ranked-choice voting has been tried, it has often proven controversial and very unpopular. The state of Alaska adopted ranked-choice voting and used it in state elections for the first time in 2022. An initiative petition in Alaska recently obtained enough signatures to put the repeal of ranked-choice voting on the ballot next November.

Utah has tried ranked-choice voting on a limited, pilot-project basis in roughly two dozen towns and cities. About half of participating cities have dropped out due to the problems caused by ranked-choice voting.

House Bill 3156, by state Rep. Eric Roberts and state Sen. Brent Howard, would ban the use of ranked-choice voting in Oklahoma.

Howard said political disputes must ultimately be decided “by the voters.”

“And whenever we talk about how they vote, they should use their one vote to choose the person that they feel best represents the ability for that office,” Howard said. “That’s what this does. We make sure that there is one person, one voter, making one vote for one office.”

He said HB 3156 would “make sure that every person’s vote counts, that there’s uniformity across the state.”

Democrats Oppose the Legislation

Democratic lawmakers objected to the legislation.

State Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City, called the prohibition “dangerous.”

“This is a state overreach into local elections, prohibiting and then through a threat of civil action diminishing the opportunity of local communities to take whatever meaningful action they believe will actually increase voter participation, return civility to our election process, and potentially reduce the overall cost associated with our elections,” Hicks said.

However, experts have warned Oklahoma lawmakers that ranked-choice voting would eliminate swift tabulation of election results and also make manual recounts impossible because of the many ballots involved and the complexity of tabulating results.

At a legislative study on the issue, conducted last September, one expert warned lawmakers that a ranked-choice ballot in a race involving multiple candidates “looks like an engineering chart,” and that the number of spoiled and/or discarded ballots increases dramatically with ranked-choice voting, meaning many voters may be effectively disenfranchised by the overly complicated system.

The process of tabulating ranked-choice election results can take weeks. And in one ranked-choice election conducted in Alameda County, California, a tabulation error allowed the wrong candidate to be declared the victor. The mistake was eventually uncovered by outside reviewers, but it took months to place the actual election winner in office.

But state Sen. Mary Boren, D-Norman, dismissed those problems.

“I think it’s sad when we use political narratives to take things off the table that have shown to be beneficial in democracy in America and throughout the world, but I’m not surprised,” Boren said. “That’s the way we do things here.”

Supporters of HB 3156 argued that Oklahoma’s current election system—which provides swift results through an easily understood voting process—increases public confidence, unlike ranked-choice voting.

State Sen. David Bullard, R-Durant, noted the United States was set up as a democratic republic, meaning “we are ruled by elected officials who gain the consent to govern from those that they govern—not the person who came in second place and mysteriously becomes the winner of an election, which is ranked-choice balloting.”

HB 3156 passed the Oklahoma Senate on a 37-8 vote. The bill now goes to Gov. Kevin Stitt.

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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