Ranked choice voting (RCV) had another momentous election cycle in 2023. It was protected and expanded in some cities, it was used for the first time in places like Boulder, Colorado, and it was adopted by voters in 3 Michigan cities.
Here's the thing, voters in East Lansing, Kalamazoo, and Royal Oak will have to wait to use the alternative voting method because of how Michigan election law is written. There is no explicit prohibition on RCV, but state officials say the law is written in such a way that denies implementation.
Voters in Ferndale, Michigan voted to adopt RCV in 2004, and yet two decades later they still have not been able to use it.
Even a proponent of allowing cities to adopt its use like state Rep. Regina Weiss, who plans to introduce legislation to make RCV implementation possible in Michigan, says "it’s impossible" under the current law.
So, what do RCV advocates do in a situation where a state prohibits the use of their reform even when approved by voters?
Austin, Texas is in a similar predicament. IVN was one of only a few national news outlets that covered a citywide vote in 2021 to use RCV for local elections. Despite voter approval, there are no plans for implementation due to how state officials interpret Texas election law.
In 2003, the state attorney general issued an opinion in which he stated that state election law requires elected officials in cities with more than 200,00 people to win with a majority, and therefore RCV could not be used.
The argument made a distinction between a "true majority" and a "preferential majority," which is odd since elections come down to the candidate voters prefer at the time. All elections are decided by a preferential plurality or majority, depending on location.
Plus, Texas holds expensive runoff elections that come down to which of two candidates that advance from a primary participating voters prefer. Would this not be considered a "preferential majority"?
Despite a clear opening for this opinion to be challenged, the City of Austin won't risk a legal challenge from state officials. Therefore, voters have to wait.
RCV advocates in Texas have proposed a "small bites" approach to getting RCV implemented in Texas; specifically, building support in key cities and areas in an effort to pressure the Texas Legislature to pass legislation that will allow RCV in the state.
Texas does not have an avenue by which citizens can push a statewide initiative to change state election law themselves. Reform has to come from the legislature.
RCV advocates in Michigan also believe a "small bites," "bottom-up" approach is the best avenue for change. Four cities now have voted to adopt RCV's use, which gives supporters a strong case to present to lawmakers.
“It is part of our strategy to pass ranked choice voting in (as) many cities as possible where citizens are demanding its benefits,” said Rank MI Voter Executive Director Ron Zimmerman.
“We are hoping this will open a dialogue to start moving an implementation certification plan forward in the near future.”
Rank MI Vote reportedly plans to grow support for and expand voter-approved RCV initiatives in other cities in 2024. Then, the group will pursue a statewide ballot measure in 2026 if needed, giving state advocates a powerful tool that reformers in states like Texas do not have.