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Ranked choice voting is being touted as a cure-all for U.S. deep partisan divides


This is news to no one, but a lot of Americans are worried about the state of democracy here. More than 8 in 10 Americans feel there's a serious threat to democracy in the U.S., according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll that was conducted after the midterms. And that anxiety has many people open to new ways of doing things, even voting.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Maine's Supreme Court clears the way for the first-ever use of ranked-choice voting in a presidential election.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Open primaries and ranked-choice voting could completely change the election landscape in Nevada.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It's going to be for most people, like, what's my ballot going to look like now?

PARKS: Lately, one change is rising to the top - ranked-choice voting.

LARRY JACOBS: Ranked-choice voting is the hot reform, and it's being driven by panic about the demise of American democracy.

PARKS: Larry Jacobs is a political science professor at the University of Minnesota.

JACOBS: People are looking around. What's going to respond to this? And ranked-choice voting is the it reform at this moment.

PARKS: Instead of choosing one candidate, in ranked-choice voting systems. A voter picks a favorite candidate, a second favorite, a third favorite and so on. Cara McCormick, co-founder of the Committee for Ranked-Choice Voting, says it's something we all do all the time.

CARA MCCORMICK: We're always saying, you know, if they don't have the mint chocolate chip ice cream, can you please get me the rocky road?

PARKS: Voters in almost 50 American cities and states have decided to switch to a ranked-choice voting system. It isn't new. It's been in the U.S. for a while. Cambridge, Mass., has been doing it for decades. San Francisco started in the early 2000s. But it was happening in little pockets across the country, and it was initially seen as sort of a pipe dream for reform-minded folks like Deb Otis. She oversees research and policy at the voting advocacy group FairVote.

DEB OTIS: This method is not a huge change, but in the places that use it, it has brought positive impacts. And it tends to start around one or two cities, and then a lot of other cities in that region opt in also. I would say the Bay Area of California is one of those. Minnesota is another area. Minneapolis and Saint Paul have had it for years, and then several new Minnesota cities have opted in just over the last four years.

PARKS: I asked whether there was one place that pushed it into the national conversation, and she didn't hesitate.

OTIS: Alaska. When they used it for the Senate and congressional and gubernatorial races in 2022, all of a sudden, everyone was talking about ranked-choice voting.

PARKS: That's because for advocates, Alaska showed the ways ranked-choice voting could transform politics and move candidates from playing to the extremes to playing for a broader and more representative group of voters.


PARKS: Let's dive a little deeper into how it works. In a ranked-choice voting system, voters have the option of ranking all the candidates on their ballot from favorite to least favorite. If one candidate has the majority of the first-place votes - in other words, more than 50% - the election is over, and that candidate wins. If not, then the candidate with the least votes is eliminated, and that candidate's voters are moved to their second choice. That keeps going until someone gets majority support. Advocates argue that the system incentivizes politicians to find middle ground in their districts. In Alaska last year, Otis argues, it worked. Voters reelected Lisa Murkowski, a moderate Republican senator who voted to impeach former President Trump.

OTIS: They also elected Mary Peltola to the House, who is considered one of the most moderate Democrats in the House, in a race that included a couple of real hard-liners.

PARKS: Advocates say another benefit of ranked-choice voting is it allows voters to pick their real favorite rather than settling. Take the presidential race as the easiest example. Generally, there's a Democrat and a Republican. Whenever someone runs as a third-party candidate, there's all this hand-wringing over whether they'll siphon off votes - the spoiler effect. In Alaska - and in Maine, which will also use ranked-choice voting next year - Otis says voters will just be able to vote for who they want to be president without trying to game the system and worrying that voting for a third-party candidate would help President Biden or former President Trump inadvertently.

OTIS: Neighbors won't be telling their neighbors, oh, you're wasting your vote if you vote for so-and-so. If a legitimate third-party challenge happens this year, all of the other voters in all the other states are going to have a really hard time with that, trying to navigate what to do, trying to play the strategist and figure out how to make our votes most impactful without harming our own side.

PARKS: Alaska and Maine are the only states that use ranked-choice voting for statewide races at this point, but next year, Nevada and other states could join them. And every year, more and more cities approve it for local races. But whenever you start messing with voting, there is going to be some pushback.

What's interesting is that here, the pushback hasn't really been from one political party or the other.

OTIS: It's mixed, and it's really regional. Like in Virginia, the Virginia Republican Party is leading the way. But then in Alaska, Republicans have come out against it. In Nevada, both parties came out against it. In other places, we've had both parties supporting it.

PARKS: Generally, ranked-choice voting is thought to somewhat dilute the power of the two major political parties in the U.S., but conservatives have started pushing back more forcefully. Five states have now banned ranked-choice voting. All those states - Montana, South Dakota, Idaho, Florida and Tennessee are places completely controlled by Republicans. And conservative groups have also started taking aim at it, too. Jason Snead leads the Honest Elections Project, one of those groups. And he told me ranked-choice voting makes voting more confusing, which isn't what the U.S. needs right now when many voters are already sitting out of the democratic process.

JASON SNEAD: I think that we need to be careful about trying to address problems like divisiveness in politics by simply changing the system that we use to elect candidates. I think that many of the issues that we are experiencing, the bitterness and the division in our politics, are symptoms of other problems. And I don't know that, you know, we have to solve something at some sort of system level.

PARKS: But even experts who are more open-minded to the reform are skeptical it can bring about the sort of transformational change that some advocates promise. We heard from Larry Jacobs earlier. He's from the University of Minnesota, and he co-wrote a paper poking holes in a number of those claims. Most notably, he says there isn't much evidence at this point that ranked-choice voting actually decreases polarization.

JACOBS: I think we need some caution because in America, we have a tendency going back, you know, a century or more, to latch on to the new kind of quick fix to what ails us in our democracy. And some of those things have not worked out well. When we look at ranked-choice voting, it tends to be more white, more affluent voters who take advantage of the multiple opportunities to rank candidates. So it's kind of continuing and appearing to multiply the disparities in our current democracy.

PARKS: I talked about that theme with Andrea Benjamin, too. She's an expert on race and voting behavior at the University of Oklahoma. She's more optimistic about the potential of ranked-choice voting, but she says any transformative change to American democracy, it's going to require more participation.

ANDREA BENJAMIN: In reality, the only accountability mechanism is that we agree to turn out and that we agree to chime in, right? And so if we choose, when we're talking about primaries, 15, 12% turnout, we are not keeping our end of the bargain.

PARKS: Benjamin says you can change the vote-tallying methods all you want, but it's still just a snapshot of the most motivated sliver of the population. Advocates argue that making the system more representative will naturally make more people want to participate because they'll be more likely to find a candidate they agree with, and they'll be more convinced that their vote actually matters. The data is pretty inconclusive, and Larry Jacobs says more analysis is needed as more places embrace the method.

JACOBS: We need to have our thinking caps on about ranked-choice voting. It does not appear at this moment to be the solution to what ails American democracy. Could it be in the future? Possibly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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