Sunday, May 26, 2024

Why did Alabama ban ranked choice voting?

  Republican lawmakers this spring approved SB 186, sponsored by Arthur Orr (R-Decatur), prohibiting ranked choice voting in the state. Gov. Kay Ivey signed it a few weeks ago.

  But outside civilians and military residents living overseas, no local government in Alabama uses ranked choice voting.

  No county uses ranked choice voting, according to the Association of County Commissions of Alabama. No city does, either, said the Alabama League of Municipalities. The Secretary of State’s office said last week that it does not know of any area in the state that employs ranked choice voting.

  “I don’t know who got worried about this, and decided it was a real thing that we needed to watch out for and protect the state from,” said Mitchell Brown, a political science professor at Auburn University. “It is not like we were going to do this anyway. The state is hardly a leader in election innovation. They like to do it the way they have always done it.”

  Messages seeking comment were left with Orr.

  The bill was one of several pieces of voting legislation filed this year that Republicans said were meant to protect election integrity and critics said were aimed at limiting ballot access. The legislation included  SB 1, sponsored by Sen. Garlan Gudger (R-Cullman), that criminalizes some forms of assistance with absentee ballots, which are already difficult to cast in the state. A coalition of civil rights groups sued the state over the law last month.

  Ranked choice voting has spread in popularity around the country. Two states use it exclusively for elections; a third could adopt it later this year, and several big cities are using the method.

  But Republicans and Democrats around the country have taken steps to stop the adoption of ranked choice voting. Republicans began attacking the method after former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin blamed ranked choice voting for her loss in the election for Alaska’s single U.S. House seat in 2022. Former President Donald Trump, the presumptive nominee for the GOP presidential nomination, also criticized it.  In the District of Columbia, the local Democratic Party filed suit to block the city from adopting the method.

  Alabama Secretary of State Wes Allen said in a statement that ranked choice voting is “an excessively confusing and complicated system.”

  “Ranked choice voting violates the fundamental principle of ‘one-person one-vote,’” the statement said. “The banning of ranked choice voting is a victory for Alabama election security.”

  Advocates argue that the system produces results that reduce polarization and better reflect the will of voters.

  “It can help campaigns to be more civil,” said Josh Daniels, a former county clerk in Utah County, Utah and advocate of ranked choice voting. “It is not, ‘elect me because Joe is despicable.’ It is, ‘elect me because I am qualified in these ways.’”

How it works

  Ranked choice voting differs from traditional voting. Instead of selecting a single candidate in a contest, a voter ranks the candidates in order of preference. Their top choice receives the first vote, then their next preferred candidate their second choice. The process continues until all the candidates on the ballot have been ranked.

  Elections officials then tally the votes. If no candidate gets a majority, the individual with the fewest number of votes will be eliminated. Their voter will then be reapportioned to the candidates who were the voters’ second choice. The process continues until a candidate gets a majority.

  As of February, 60 jurisdictions in the nation had adopted ranked choice voting for at least one set of elections, according to Fair Vote, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for ranked choice voting. 50 had used it for all. Alaska and Maine use the method for statewide elections, and Nevada voters approved its use in 2022, though it must be voted on again in 2024.

  Several cities around the country, including New York and San Francisco, employ ranked choice voting. Utah allows cities in the state to use the method. Alabama and five other southern states allow ranked choice voting for those serving overseas; SB 186 specifically protected that method of voting.

  Ranked choice voting is also known as an instant runoff voting method because reapportioning votes is already included in the process, making a second election to decide the eventual winner unnecessary.

  It can also be used in city elections in which people select several candidates and ensures that the candidates with the most votes will fill each of the seats when there are multiple at-large candidates vying for the positions.

  “Those rankings matter because now we can facilitate this instant runoff to determine who the consensus majority favorites and winners are for each of these three spots, all with you submitting only one ballot and just ranking all the names,” said Daniels.

  In primary elections in Alabama, a runoff is held between the top two candidates if no candidate gets a majority of the votes. In some sense, the state is already implementing ranked choice voting, just in two separate elections because the top two candidates go to a runoff. The disadvantage is that voter turnout suffers when the state must host a second election to eventually pick the winner.

  In Alabama’s 2nd Congressional District, both Democrats and Republicans went to April runoffs following the March primary vote. According to an analysis by FairVote, turnout in the Republican primary fell about 56% while turnout on the Democratic side fell 37%. Advocates argue that ranked choice voting can save money by eliminating the need for a second election.

  “That is just one really important example where I think southern states that have runoff elections can use a ranked ballot to make sure they are protecting everyone’s right to participate,” Daniels said.

  Robin Buckelew, advocacy director for the League of Women Voters of Alabama, said the group opposed the ban, saying ranked choice voting “mitigates polarization.”

  “If you think you are going to need the next candidate’s votes after yours, you are not going to go out of your way to antagonize the voters that consider that person to be their first choice,” Buckelew said. “If you are ahead in the primary, you would be in position for a runoff, then if the third person is gone, then you get the second-choice votes of the loser, which could put you ahead.”

  Some of the other benefits include increased opportunities for minority candidates who often get a sizable portion of the electorate but not enough to win a majority, which requires a coalition of voters in the community. Ranked choice voting encourages the formation of those coalitions that could ascend some minority candidates.

  It also discourages strategic voting.

  “With ranked choice voting, you can still vote your conscience for your minority candidate, and still have a second choice and have a vote for who wins,” Daniels said.

  About the author: Ralph Chapoco covers state politics as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. His main responsibility is the criminal justice system in Alabama.

  This article was published by Alabama Reflector. Alabama Reflector is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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