The perfect election? It might be more than just the one your candidate wins, a panel told attendees at NCSL Base Camp 2021. They said it’s also about making elections more appealing and accessible, and it has much more to do with citizens than with candidates.
The session, titled “Election Perfection? It’s in the Eye of the Beholder,” showcased approaches that advocates hope will be widely embraced.
Ranked Choice Voting
Virginia House Delegate Sally Hudson (D) founded Ranked Choice Voting Virginia, which advocates for a system that allows voters to rank every candidate in a race, from first choice to last. If a voter’s top choice loses, the next choice gets counted and so on until one candidate has a majority of the vote. The result: A winner who overall was preferred by the most voters.
“Voters get it,” Hudson said. “And voters like it. So if you look at the polls from New York City ... the overwhelming majority, north of 90% of the voters, said, ‘I understood it,’ and something like three out of four said, ‘I want to do that again.’”
Voters get it. And voters like it. —Virginia House Delegate Sally Hudson, on ranked choice voting
Ranked choice voting has a 100-year history in the U.S. Several cities adopted it throughout the 1920s and ’30s, but the system fell out of favor in the 1950s—in part because counting was done by hand, and single-choice systems could be counted on machines. Over the last two decades, however, the system has really started to catch on. Hudson cited a list of cities that have begun using it in recent years, including Minneapolis, San Francisco, Santa Fe and, most recently, New York City in its July mayoral primary. The state of Maine used it in statewide races in 2018 and in the presidential race in 2020.
Hudson, a labor economist who teaches public policy at the University of Virginia, sponsored a bill to allow cities and towns to use the system, which she said is no different than holding runoff elections.
“We conduct what's called an ‘instant runoff’ to determine which candidate genuinely has the support of the majority of the electorate,” Hudson said. “It's just with the aid of modern technology, we no longer have to drag everybody back to the polls and have them vote again if nobody wins a majority of the vote upfront.”
It has the added benefit of giving citizens a chance to vote for their favorite candidate without worrying they are throwing away their vote if that candidate doesn’t seem to have much of a chance, she said.
Hudson said almost all modern election systems have the capacity to handle ranked voting, but there are costs in software and training. On the other hand, there are also costs in maintaining a system that limits voters to one choice in a field of candidates, she said.
“What we see is that too often in elections, most of the voters are opting to stay home because they’re feeling disengaged,” Hudson said.
John Opdycke leads Open Primaries, a group whose motto is, “No one should have to belong to a political party to vote.”
Opdycke said party affiliation is declining, with 43% of voters registered as unaffiliated, a number that rises to 50% among millennials. But primary elections in many states require voters to be registered with a party, as this NCSL overview shows.
The shift to party primaries in the early 1900s was admirable, he said.
“Back when all the decisions were made by small numbers of people in backrooms, opening up the party nomination process to the voters, was very positive ... and very forward-looking,” Opdycke said.
Now it leaves many voters out, he said, and he believes it produces elected officials more beholden to their party than their constituents. He noted that Latino voters are the fastest growing segment of the population and are more likely to be unaffiliated. But 72% of unaffiliated Latino voters live in states where unaffiliated voters can’t participate in primaries.
“What we’re talking about is redefining what a primary is—that it’s not the process of a party nominating its standard bearer; it's the process of the public determining which are the most popular candidates to move from round one to round two,” Opdycke said.
Hudson noted that ranked choice voting can mitigate the need for primary elections because voters can winnow a group of candidates in the general election. But she and Opdycke agreed there is value in the process of finding the top candidates in a primary round, depending on the election.
Reining in Citizen Initiatives
According to NCSL, 26 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands allow citizens to place issues on the state ballot, a process that has been subject to debate, legislative revisions and court challenges over the years. While citizens tend to favor this process, lawmakers often feel differently, since it circumvents the legislature.
The Idaho Supreme Court is considering a law passed in April that requires signatures gathered to put measures on the ballot to come from 35 districts, up from 18.
Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke (R) and other backers of the measure say it would ensure ballot issues have support throughout the state’s urban and rural areas. Critics say it makes it nearly impossible for citizens to use their right to put issues on the ballot and have asked the court to overturn it.
At the Base Camp session, Bedke stressed the need to strike a balance between the rights of citizens to amend the constitution through the ballot and the need to ensure citizen-led initiatives are properly vetted.
He said he’d like to see is a way to get a more thorough exploration of the proposals before they are voted on, such as being clear about the expected price tag of a measure. He noted that under the current system, when voters approve an initiative, the Legislature has to come in after the fact and add the details that make it a complete law.
“We know how detailed legislation needs to be, and sometimes the things that come out of the initiative process are lacking those details,” Bedke said. He said it requires “a careful balance” when lawmakers put the nuts-and-bolts details into initiatives that citizens have passed. If they appear to modify the initiative too much, “There’s a hue and cry that we’re trying to strip the citizens of constitutional ... process.”
Idaho has been in court over ballot measures several times in recent years, including a case before the U.S. Supreme Court that put a hold on electronic signature gathering for a measure to legalize marijuana until a state court could address the legality of it.
Bedke said the court challenges are helping define and clarify how this complicated process works. And he said it will always come with controversy because the issues that go to the ballot are usually things lawmakers have rejected, such as the 2018 ballot measure voters passed to expand Medicaid.
“But when I leave politics, and I go back to being a regular citizen, that's a right that I want to have,” Bedke said. “I’ve been here long enough to know that the Legislature can make mistakes, and the power ultimately resides in the people.”
Kelley Griffin is a writer and editor in NCSL’s Communications Division.