Our nation’s electoral systems desperately need attention, something which became even more evident when a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Partisans disagree about what needs reforming and why. No single measure by itself will put us back on track.
However, the time has come in Connecticut to consider a simple, feasible and nonpartisan reform that has been gaining momentum across the country: Ranked Choice Voting. We are accustomed to elections in which a voter marks a ballot for one candidate only, and where the candidate with the most votes wins. Unfortunately, in crowded primaries, and general elections with more than two candidates, this method of “plurality voting” often produces “winners” who fail to represent the preferences of a majority of voters.
In the early 2016 Republican primary races, Donald Trump “ won” contests despite two-thirds of Republican primary voters casting ballots for other candidates. In 2000, George W. Bush won the state of Florida (and therefore the Presidency), by less than 600 votes, while a “spoiler candidate” – Ralph Nader – received 85,000 votes. Exit polling showed that two-thirds of the Nader voters preferred Al Gore to Bush.
Arguably, Connecticut Republicans lost the 2018 gubernatorial election because they nominated a candidate, Bob Stefanowksi, who was opposed by twice as many Republican primary voters as those who supported him. Stefanowksi won the primary with just 29 percent of the vote. Winners without majority support have prevailed in Democratic primaries and general elections as well.
How does Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) work to address these challenges? Rather than being forced to mark a ballot for only one candidate, voters may exercise an option to rank their second and third choice preferences, and so on for as many candidates as the option extends. If a candidate wins a majority of first choice votes, the candidate wins just as they do in a typical plurality election. However, if no candidate wins a majority, there is an “instant runoff.” The candidate with the least votes is eliminated and that candidate’s voters are redistributed to those voters’ next choice. This process continues until one candidate reaches a 50 percent majority.
Ranked Choice Voting assures that a true voter consensus emerges in every election. Voters can support their favorite candidates without worrying that they are “throwing their vote away” when they cast a ballot for a candidate with little chance of winning (and risk their least favorite candidate being elected.) Candidates are not discouraged from running for fear of being ostracized as a spoiler. RCV curbs negative campaigning as candidates realize they should appeal to a wider range of voters for whom they might become a second or third choice.
Although our state legislature is confronting profound challenges in passing legislation this session, we believe strengthening our democracy cannot wait. That’s why we are calling on the Government Administration and Elections (GAE) Committee to raise HB-5884, An Act Establishing a Task Force to Study Ranked-Choice Voting for state and federal elections in Connecticut. The bill was introduced by 10 members of the General Assembly. We appreciate there are other urgent and necessary voting reforms before the Committee, especially the early voting and no-excuse absentee voting ballot resolutions. But passing an RCV “study bill” should not be a heavy lift.
HB-5884 merely establishes a task force to assess the implications of moving to RCV elections. A study bill, HB-5820, passed the House in 2019 with a comfortable margin; the floor debate took less than 20 minutes. The Office of Fiscal Analysis reported that HB-5820 would have no fiscal impact. The study bill was raised again last year, but put on hold due to the pandemic.
There is widespread public support for RCV. Dozens of citizens submitted testimony at public hearings in 2019 and 2020; virtually everyone in support of the bills. The Secretary of the State and the League of Women Voters of Connecticut both endorsed studying Ranked Choice Voting.
In 2018, Connecticut took an important step in making our democracy more representative by giving voters a real say in presidential elections. Led by GAE chairs Mae Flexer and Dan Fox, Connecticut became the first state to join the National Popular Vote Compact following the 2016 presidential election. The Compact will guarantee the presidency to the candidate with the most votes nationwide, ending the undue influence of a handful of battleground states. It was a huge win for democracy; at the time the president of National Popular Vote declared that the “road to success runs through Connecticut.”
Connecticut has a similar opportunity to lead the movement for election reform by pursuing Ranked Choice Voting. RCV is a simple change to the way we vote with a huge payoff: it makes our democracy more representative.
Thanks to the expansion of absentee ballot voting to every eligible voter for the 2020 election Connecticut saw the greatest voter turnout ever. Ballot resolutions to amend the constitution to permanently allow early voting and unrestricted absentee ballot voting will dramatically improve voter access. But strengthening our democracy requires more than making it easier to vote; it requires that winning candidates better reflect the will of the people.
>The mob violence on display at the nation’s Capitol on January 6 was a stark reminder of the fragility of our democracy. The prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in its far-reaching report on reinventing American democracy for the 21st century, recommends RCV as a strategy to achieve equality of voice and representation. Ranked Choice Voting deserves to be explored. We call on legislators to make every attempt to pass HB-5884, the RCV study bill, this year. Strengthening our representative democracy simply cannot wait.
Jonathan Perloe for Voter Choice Connecticut
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