NCSL's The Canvass

Ranked Choice Voting Has Its Red-Carpet Moment in 2017

red carpetAmong the more notable developments on Election Night 2016 (wait there was only one?) was that Maine became the first state in the country to approve the use of ranked choice voting for state elections, including state legislative races. Ranked choice voting, sometimes called instant runoff voting, is a practice that’s used most often by cities and towns for local and municipal elections and sometimes by states for overseas and military voters in the case of a runoff election. Now that it’s burst onto the scene in a big way, NCSL decided to take a deeper dive into some of the basics, like:

  • What is ranked-choice voting and how does it work?
  • What’s the why for legislators?
  • What are the concerns for election administrators?
  • What’s happening in 2017 legislative sessions?

What Is Ranked Choice Voting and How Does It Work?

image of sample ranked choice ballotRanked choice voting works just as it sounds. Voters rank all candidates for a given office according to their preference—first choice, second choice, third choice, etc. Voters aren’t limited to simply picking one option as in winner-take-all elections. Instead, voters can rank multiple options in order of their preference, especially if they feel multiple candidates would be qualified to hold the office.

picture of rep. andrew mclean“With Ranked Choice Voting, you have the freedom to vote for the candidate you like best, without worrying that you will help to elect the candidate you like least,” said Representative Andrew McLean (D-Maine, right). “Ranked Choice Voting rewards consensus candidates and ensures that candidates who are opposed by a majority of voters can never win. This better voting system gives more voice and more choice to voters.”

Ranking the candidates is the easy part. The more complicated part comes in how the votes are counted, mainly because the votes may have to be counted more than once. In a typical plurality election, the candidate who receives the most votes wins. But in ranked-choice voting, a winner is not declared until one candidate receives 50 percent plus one or above. Here’s how to get there:

  • First, the votes are counted per each voter’s number one preference.
  • If no candidate receives 50 percent or more of the vote, then the candidate with the fewest number of votes is eliminated and the votes are counted again.
  • If a voter’s number one choice was the eliminated candidate, then the vote is given to that voter’s second choice candidate.
  • Repeat with choices down the list until one candidate tops 50 percent.

Believe it or not, ranked choice voting isn’t a novel idea. It originated in Europe in the late 19th century and was first used in elections in Australia in the early 20th century. In fact, the U.S. has used the system before—several cities adopted it throughout the 1920s and 1930s, according to the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center. It fell out of favor in the 1950s until a resurgent adoption by cities in the last two decades. Currently, 10 cities use ranked choice voting including Cambridge, Mass.; Minneapolis and St. Paul; and San Francisco, Oakland and other Bay Area cities in California. Nine other jurisdictions have laws allowing it, but have not yet implemented. Additionally, ranked choice voting is used by colleges and universities, private nongovernment organizations and even by the Academy Awards for deciding Best Picture. (Be sure to check out media outlet Vox’s video scrutinizing the RCV process, and FairVote executive director Rob Richie’s response to the criticism.)

What’s the Why for Legislators?

Why should legislators care about ranked choice voting? Let’s look at some of the pros and cons.

Opponents argue that plurality seems to work just fine. Here’s the kicker from ranked-choice supporters: in a plurality election with several candidates, the winner may receive less than a majority of the votes (i.e. less than 50 percent). Cited often is the 2010 Maine governor’s race when winning candidate Paul LePage received approximately 38 percent of the vote among a divided field of four candidates. Supporters of ranked-choice argue that candidates should receive at least 50 percent of the vote to win to indicate a broader base of support from their constituents. Another instance took place in Hawaii: special elections to fill congressional seats are done without primaries in the Aloha State and in 2010, a Republican won a special election for the 1st Congressional District with 39 percent of the vote. The rest of the vote was split among several Democrats in the race.

Another benefit, depending on whom you ask, of ranked choice voting is limiting the ability of independent or minor party candidates to play spoiler. In a plurality election, it’s possible for third party candidates to siphon off votes from other candidates who might otherwise receive a certain base of support. One can’t help but think of Ralph Nader and the Green Party in the 2000 presidential election when some say that votes for him swung the election to George W. Bush. Still, third parties would need to receive a certain level of support for ranked choice to effect limiting their influence.

Ranked choice voting gives independent and minor party candidates a different role. Voters can cast their first preference for someone from the Green Party or the Libertarian Party and know that, if the vote counting goes to a second level, their second choice—a Democrat or a Republican—will get their vote. They can vote their heart, without fear of throwing a race to someone they especially do not want.

Ranked choice voting may also bolster access for military and overseas voters when a primary race necessitates a runoff. States must adhere to federal law mandating ballots be sent 45 days ahead of time to overseas voters—but if there is a runoff, getting a second ballot to them is nearly impossible. Five states—Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolinahave chosen to use a ranked choice system for military and overseas voters to ensure they still have a vote in the runoff. It’s sometimes called instant runoff voting but it works very much like ranked choice with some slight nuances.

Ranked choice voting could help eliminate separate runoff elections in those 11 states that have provisions for primary runoff elections. Since running any election is costly and time-consuming, this may be an increasingly interesting option for states. 

Ranked choice voting is not without criticism. What happens if a voter decides to only vote for one candidate and not rank the others (sometimes called “bullet” voting)?

“It’s that voter’s choice to not rank the candidates so that therefore is an exhausted ballot. Voters can vote for as few or as many candidates as they would like,” says Gary Bartlett of the Ranked Choice Voting Center. “It’s a choice of whether you vote for one, some or all.”

picture of State Rep. Heather SirockiOthers have expressed concern with the idea that candidates with fewer first-choice votes could end up winning. “The loser’s voters that opted to rank their choices will have their ballots pulled and re-tabulated,” said Representative Heather Sirocki (R-Maine, left) in a 2016 op-ed opposing the ballot measure in Maine. “This means the ballots of the loser(s) will determine the winner. Some voters, the voters of the loser(s), would get to vote more than once.”

While supporters argue that ranked choice forces candidates to appeal for second and third place votes, doubters say that today’s polarized environment likely won’t result in voters significantly crossing the aisle and that nonpartisan municipal races are a poor indicator of what would happen with partisan statewide elections.

What Are the Concerns for Election Administrators?

So, your jurisdiction has authorized the use of ranked choice voting—what happens now? It falls to election administrators to implement the system and there are some challenges for administrators.

“The concept of ranked choice voting is pretty basic. It’s the nuances of how you tabulate as well as how many choices you have on your ballot that can be difficult,” says Minneapolis Director of Elections and Voter Services Grace Wachlarowicz. “There’s also no consistency across the jurisdictions that currently do allow ranked choice voting, so there’s no real commonality on how to tabulate.”

Administrators’ concerns center on technology, or perhaps the lack thereof. Only two voting equipment vendors have systems capable of performing ranked choice voting that are certified by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC). Others have developed modules or workarounds, but do not have EAC certification. This has left jurisdictions to utilize creative methods for doing the complicated calculations needed for the allocating (and reallocating) of votes. For example, in Minneapolis a hand count is combined with formula-heavy Excel spreadsheets—a rather clunky process. Minneapolis also uses two teams that must compare their counts to ensure accuracy, says Wachlarowicz. The city also recently changed its ordinance to allow the city to eliminate candidates who are mathematically unlikely to advance, especially in races with crowded fields (a mayoral race in 2013 had upwards of 30 candidates). Advocates are pushing for new voting machines to include ranked choice capability.

Cost is another factor. The Maine secretary of state’s office said it would need $761,000 in 2017-2018 and $641,000 in 2018-2019 for additional ballot pages and updated voting equipment. Additionally, the Department of Public Safety would need $149,000 over that same timeframe for the cost of transporting and securing ballots for central counting in Augusta, rather than in local jurisdictions. 

What about the voters? Because ranked choice voting is different from what voters are used to seeing, voter education is key to effectively implementing ranked choice voting. Wachlarowicz recommends a robust voter outreach and education program that explains how to fill out the ballot and what each choice means. Engaging outside groups can also be effective, but doing so may compromise the consistency and accuracy of the educational materials. Candidates play a part in the education process too as they reach out to voters. After the 2013 election, a survey of voters in Minneapolis found that 92 percent of voters knew that they would be asked to rank candidates and 80 percent found the explanation of ranked choice voting by elections judges very or somewhat helpful.

What’s Happening in 2017?

To date in this year, 25 bills have been introduced in 14 states to use ranked choice voting in elections at various levels. NCSL is tracking these bills and any that relate to other alternative forms of voting and the elections legislation database has more information.

In Maine, the fate of the 2016 ballot measure authorizing ranked choice is currently up in the air. One of the key questions over the ballot measure was whether it would hold up under Maine’s constitution which states that the governor can be elected with a plurality of votes, rather than a majority. The origin of that clause is a fascinating bit of history from the Pine Tree State, but state lawmakers have asked the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to weigh in on the constitutionality of the ballot measure. Supporters of the ballot measure say the action isn’t necessary but briefs have been filed and oral arguments are set for April. Stay tuned.

Better Data, Better Elections?

Data in cyber space“Better Data, Better Decisions, Better Government.”

Many variations on that phrase can be found with a quick Google search. However it is worded, the increasingly popular phrase suggests that if you have access to a decent source of data on the topic du jour, you can make wiser decisions.

In terms of elections, candidates can use better data to more effectively target their get-out-the-vote resources. Election administrators can and often do use data to better allocate resources. Here’s how North Carolina visualizes its data, to give some ideas.

Lawmakers? A well-run election produces happier voters—always a good thing. In Virginia, in a recent special election, turnout was expected to be low so not enough ballots were printed (that’s the unhappy voter option). That prompted Delegate Steve Newman to sponsor SB 1552, requiring data to be used to decide how many ballots to print. 

“There was some concern about locals turning over absolute control over to the state,” said Newman. “We understood that they didn’t want the state to dictate.” As enacted, the bill requires local election officials to consult with the state, and the state provides their estimate of the number of ballots to be printed.

Frequently legislators use data-based reports from local officials, national sources such as the Election Administration and Voting Survey from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the Election Performance Index from the Pew Charitable Trusts, or from academic researchers to determine what’s best for their state in terms of the number of polling places, ballots to be printed, days and hours for early voting and more. Data can also help with key decisions about the election model, such as whether changing to vote centers or adding pre-Election Day voting will help decrease election costs or increase voter satisfaction.

Is data a panacea for all that ails elections?  “Data can’t tell you everything,” says Monica Crane Childers, director of government services for nonpartisan, nonprofit Democracy Works. “But it can point you in the right direction. When it is visualized in a clearly understandable way, it allows legislators to make decisions based on the facts of the matter rather than on any one person’s opinion.”

Because “show, don’t tell” works best, Democracy Works, teamed up with the Center for Technology and Civic Life, NCSL and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission last year to create webisodes about data visualization for elections. Check out the Tech Time series intended for election officials on how to gather data, how to find national sources of data that can be helpful at the local level, and how to present that information to policymakers, such as legislators. The first two episodes, Building a Data Culture in Your Office and Visualizing Data Effectively, are aimed at election administrators—although they may easily provide legislative staff or legislators with ideas on what is in the realm possibilities.

NCSL hosted a related conversation on how local election officials can use data to persuade legislators. This webisode is now the basis for a Data Analysis for Election Administration class taught through the Election Academy program at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Senators John Murante (Neb.) and Cheryl Kagan (Md.) helped provide a reality check on the uses of data visualizations. Their big message to election officials: Tell us first—in plain terms—what is the problem you aim to fix, and what you suggest as the solution. Only then, show off the data. 


What Is a Common Data Format for Elections and Why Should I Care?

quote bubble with "for NCSL 2017"Let’s start by noting that elections are all based on the transfer of data: from a voter registration system to a poll book; from a voting machine to an election night reporting system; you get the idea.  Right now, the tech associated with elections is proprietary and the pieces of equipment don’t necessarily communicate well from one vendor to another.  With a “common data format” any device would input/output data in a common format, without needing any “bridge” software. Basically, a common data format assures interoperability. Like your laptop can connect to any printer or projector or keyboard—because the ports have been standardized.

In the elections world, a common data format could lead to at least two good outcomes. First, data would be more readily collected and used. Second, administrators could “plug and play” different kinds of equipment from different vendors, opening the marketplace a bit. Both benefits could increase efficiency, and decrease costs, over time.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology, with lots of input from vendors, is developing common data formats. (Our thanks to John Wack from NIST for helping us on this question.)

From the Chair

image of rep. kenny imesRepresentative Kenny Imes chairs the Elections, Constitutional Amendments and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee in the Kentucky House of Representatives. Republicans took control of the Kentucky House after the 2016 elections for the first time in 96 years. He represents House District 5, which encompasses Calloway County and part of Trigg County in southwestern Kentucky. Imes spoke to The Canvass on March 14.

Q: What is your overriding perspective when it comes to elections policy?

A: We try to evaluate each bill on the merits and what it’s trying to accomplish. Talking about elections is talking about a whole gamut of issues from running elections to campaign finance reports.

Q: What are some of the elections issues in Kentucky?

A: We are trying to make voting more accessible for disabled voters by allowing them to apply for absentee ballots and go ahead and cast their vote there in the election office at the same time. We will be voting on that bill soon.

In Kentucky, we have local option elections on allowing liquor sales—whether you go “wet” or “dry”—and current laws states those elections can’t be held on the same date as a regular election. One of my bills has been to make local option elections on regular election days, otherwise the petitioner could choose another date but would have to bear the cost of the election. Since January, we’ve had 15 local option elections. It costs per precinct about $1,800 to $2,000 for these elections. We had 52 local options last year, some countywide, some precincts, but that’s a lot of money for counties.

I’ve also got a bill that I will be pushing next year to move all statewide elections to an even-numbered year. In a four-year cycle, it will save counties about $13.5 million and the state about $3.5 million. It will also help with voter fatigue and increase voter participation.

We’re also trying to simplify our campaign finance process—if you’re running for city council or a local office and only expect to raise a minimal amount of money it doesn’t make sense for you to have to file multiple reports. By combining the three tiers into one threshold, it will make it easier on our election finance people. 

Our secretary of state wants early voting, but many our county clerks, especially rural clerks, don’t want it, but I expect we’ll address that during the interim session.

Q: Are there any takeaways from the 2016 elections that have come up in the 2017 session?

A: Constitutional amendments are always a big concern and we will address many of them in the interim session and the 2018 session. Reforming our campaign finance system is something that came up that we are addressing now. I want to have hearings on early voting as well so the public understands where we are. We’ll be looking at other ways to help disabled voter and overseas and military voters. We want to be as accommodating as we can while ensuring only eligible people are voting.

Another area we may look at is improving our voter list through better intergovernmental relations so we don’t have voters on the rolls in two different states. 

Q: What are you most proud of when it comes to elections in Kentucky?

A: I think systematically we are working toward what’s cost effective for the taxpayer, but also getting as many people involved as we can. That’s what I’m working towards. Whether they are Democrat, Republican or Independent, I want them to be voting. We want it to be as open, successful and encouraging as we can. In a recent local option election for a whole city only 30 people voted. We’ve got to get the word out and get people more engaged.  


From the election administrator's perspective

image of kristen staviskyKristen Zebrowski Stavisky is the Democratic commissioner of elections for the Rockland County, N.Y., Board of Elections. Rockland County is the smallest county geographically in New York and was the site of several skirmishes and the battle of Stony Point during the Revolutionary War, which earned General “Mad” Anthony Wayne his nickname. Stavisky spoke to The Canvass on March 20.

Q: How did you get into county election administration?

A: New York is unique in that the county boards of elections have a Democratic commissioner and a Republican commissioner and they are recommended by their parties and appointed by the legislature. I’m also the chair of the Democratic Party in Rockland County and I was recommended by committee in 2012 for a four-year term, was reappointed last year, and have been a committee person since I was 18. My father was a county legislator in Rockland County and the State Assembly for over 20 years—I feel like I grew up in county government.

Q: How did things go in 2016?

A: Last year was amazing. We had the possibility of four elections—in New York our primaries are not consolidated and we have a presidential primary, a federal primary and a state and local primary. We help the towns and villages with their local elections too so there’s always an election going on that we are involved [with] in some shape or form. Last year, it seemed like it never stopped. By the time one election was over, you were already trying to prepare and educate people about the cutoff registration dates for the next election.

It was a busy, but extremely exciting time for us especially as we had two candidates from New York at the top of the ballot and unprecedented interest in the election. The run up to the general election was unlike anything I’ve seen—to say it was busy is an understatement. On Election Day, we planned on 100 percent voter enrollment for ballots printed, but we still ran out in some places and we were printing ballots that day. You can do all the planning in the world, but life can get in the way. There was one race where people were confused. They had to vote for two candidates, but the office spanned three columns. We had a huge number of voided ballots which caused panic for many of the election inspectors. People are counting on you to exercise their right to vote.

We’ve now decided to have a user group with inspectors and regular voters to help us look at the ballots before an election, especially in a presidential year when you have voters who may not have voted in four years.

Q: What are some of the elections issues in Rockland County?

A: Rockland County is extremely diverse and that can lead to some tension, especially when it comes to school district elections and that tension has bled into all elections now.

Q: What are some of the elections issues at the state level in New York?

A: We are living in the instant gratification society where things can be ordered online and on your door step within days and voters are expecting that level of customer service from their boards of elections, rather than viewing us as a cash-strapped and beleaguered government agency. Voters want to vote the week before the election and are even willing to wait in line to do it. Early voting is not an “if” it’s a “when.”

Online voter registration is another issue. The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has done a great job registering people—there have been incredible increases in the number of people registering online through the DMV, which is the only way to register online. Direct online registration would streamline the process.

Registration deadlines are another issue. I’ve certainly dealt with my share of irate voters who didn’t understand why the deadlines were so early. The deadlines were designed to prevent party raiding and we’ve had some experience with that in Rockland County. It’s ripe for abuse and that lag time does serve a purpose. With that goes consolidating primary dates—the cost of having separate primaries is just astronomical not to mention the cost of voter fatigue.

Governor (Andrew) Cuomo put many of these reforms in his State of the State address this year and we are watching all these things. Things are changing and change can be difficult. I would like the legislature to get on board with some of these changes because it will save money in the long run and help us provide a better service to voters.

Q: What are you most proud of when it comes to running good elections?

A: We have one mission here: that every eligible voter has unfettered access to the polls. When we can help, people vote, it’s a great feeling. Last year, a group of students thought they registered to vote in class but the information never made it to us. One student took the initiative, reached out to us, and we were able to help them obtain court-ordered ballots. It was a great feeling to help those students vote in their first presidential primary.

Q: What would you like state legislators to know?

A: People want to utilize their right to vote. It’s up to us to make it as easy and seamless as we can. Legislators should know it’s all about people. The time it takes for outreach and educating voters is money well spent. Voters can have a voice and those voices matter to us. 


Worth Noting

from ncsl's elections team

A graphic that reads "From NCSL Elections Team"You absolutely cannot miss NCSL’s Future of Elections: Technology, Policy and Funding Conference, June 14-16 in Williamsburg, Va. Now’s the time to register and tell all your friends, colleagues and acquaintances. While there is no registration fee for legislators or legislative staff, everyone is welcome and we expect a good turnout of administrators, vendors and policymakers.

The Canvass doesn’t usually talk about redistricting, but when it does it provides a LegisBrief on redistricting commissions and a webpage on redistricting commission bills. Stay tuned for more redistricting information, my friends.

—Wendy Underhill, Dan Diorio and Amanda Buchanan