Protecting Our Laboratories of Democracy: The Dangers of Ranked Choice Voting Bans

Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt recently signed into law a bill that bans ranked choice voting (RCV) at all levels of elections within the state. Oklahoma is the seventh state to pass a law that stops voters from exploring the alternative voting method. 

Regardless of how one feels about RCV, this development should alarm anyone who believes the US needs voting systems that bolster competition, choice, and accountability in the electoral process. Because if they ban one reform, they'll ban others.

HB 3156 in Oklahoma made sure to cover all methods of ranked choice voting that might be considered. It says:

“No election conducted by the State Election Board, a county election board, or any municipality authorized to conduct elections in Oklahoma shall use ranked choice voting, ranked voting, proportional ranked voting, preferential voting, or instant runoff voting.”

The bill was approved not long after Kentucky pushed through their own ranked choice voting legislation. The other states that have banned RCV include Florida, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, and Tennessee.

The emergence of RCV bans is relatively new (starting in 2022) and by no coincidence comes as momentum for the reform spreads across the US. RCV is used in red states, blue states, nearly 50 cities, and by state Republican and Democratic Parties.

States like Utah have adopted pilot programs so that cities and counties can see for themselves if RCV is right for their elections. Before it was banned in Kentucky, Sen. Whitney Westerfield said he wanted to propose a similar program.

“I think prohibiting [RCV] before we have a chance to see how those pilots in different places around the country works is premature,” he remarked.

By adopting a ban, local municipalities are denied the right to decide what elections are best for their communities. They are stuck with a system that can produce winners without majority support or require expensive and unnecessary runoff elections.

Oklahoma Sen. Brent Howard, the principal sponsor of the RCV ban, said the security and validity of elections requires that "we need to have a uniform system." But "uniformity" is code for a "system we control."

If one city uses RCV and another city doesn't, it doesn't affect the validity or security of the election. There are cities and counties across the US that use different election methods than neighboring municipalities without issue.

"Uniformity" simply means "protecting the status quo."

It is evident that as certain reforms see mounting victories, those who benefit from the status quo move to block further reform expansion. In the last decade, RCV implementation has skyrocketed -- including at the statewide level in two states, Maine and Alaska.

Lo and behold, voters start to see lawmakers propose and implement bans.

Citizens have taken it upon themselves in greater numbers in recent election cycles to transform the electoral and political processes to be fairer, more competitive and representative, and less corrupt through the citizen initiative process.

And, wouldn't you know it -- the citizen ballot initiative process is under attack. Lawmakers in many states want to make it harder to get initiatives on the ballot and pass them, and have been successful in states like Florida. 

As the number of independent voters surges nationwide, citizens want an election process that treats all voters equally, which is why open and nonpartisan primary reform is expanding coast-to-coast.

But with the rise in reform efforts comes partisan efforts in Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, Texas, West Virginia, and more to close taxpayer-funded primary elections to party members only. And some of these efforts have been successful. 

One thing is clear: Reform bans are not about protecting elections or voters. They are about protecting a system that is designed to benefit those in power.

Oklahoma Rep. David Bullard, a supporter of the state's RCV ban, said "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."

He added that this is what happens with RCV balloting,

"Ruled by" is an interesting choice in words, but is fitting in a system that uses a loose definition of "consent." Most voters do not feel represented by the current system, but in the end their options at the ballot box are whoever the parties give them.

One cannot say forced choice is true consent. 

There is no mystery to how someone might trail in the start of vote tallying and end up winning by the end of tallying -- that is just how some elections work out, even under choose-one voting.

It is like observing a race. One runner has a lead at the halfway mark, but another runner sprints past them as they approach the finish line. There is no mystery to how the other runner won. They crossed the finish line first.

RCV requires winners to have a majority of the vote. Voters rank candidates in order of preference. The first-choice selections are tallied. If no candidate gets a majority, the last place candidate is eliminated, and the results factor in who their voters preferred next.

Imagine a three-person race. Candidate A gets 45% of first-choice selections. Candidate B gets 43%. Candidate C is then eliminated because no one got a majority. The winner will come down to who C's voters preferred between A and B.

If it ends up being B, there is no mystery to how B won. B had more appeal with C's voters than A did. B crossed the finish line. 

Advocates of RCV say this method protects choice in elections, encourages voters to express their true preferences in elections and still have an impact on the outcome, and reduces negative campaigning because candidates may need broader appeal to win. 

Some cities in Oklahoma or elsewhere may want to try out how this voting method works for their communities -- and cities and counties should be encouraged to be laboratories of democracy to determine what systems work best for voters. 

In other words, what systems treat voters equally and fairly, and empowers their voice to produce greater competition and accountability. 

Bans on RCV or other electoral and voting reforms shut down laboratories of democracy. And when lawmakers can get away with banning one type of reform, they will move to ban any other reform that might rise up in its place.

So even if voters don't support RCV but may support another type of voting reform -- that reform could be next. 

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