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Commentary: Ranked Choice Voting

This year there have been hundreds of elections for Congress. Most have been primaries to nominate candidates for the November election. But there have been a few special elections held to fill vacancies in the U.S. House of Representatives. State governors can fill U.S. Senate vacancies by appointment, but must call elections to fill House vacancies.

None of these special elections has been more consequential than the one a few weeks ago to fill the vacancy in Alaska created by the death of the House’s longest-serving member, Don Young. This election was special in four ways:

  • A Democrat, Mary Peltola, won a seat that Young, a Republican, had held for a half-century.
  • Peltola is the first Alaskan-American to serve in the House.
  • The flipped seat gives Democrats an unexpected one to work with in November as they try to protect their very slim majority.
  • Peltola was elected only because of Alaska’s ranked-choice voting system.

Ranked-choice voting is used statewide in only three states – Alaska, Maine and Utah – but is used in many American cities, and is probably coming to an election near you soon. It addresses directly voters’ concerns that they’d like more choices. How often have you voted thinking: “Susan is my top choice for Congress, but Bill is okay and would be my second choice.” Most places, it’s Susan – vote and go home. With ranked choice, it’s Susan first and Bill second, and if Bill gets the votes from candidates ranked lower, then Bill can win.

Think of it as candidate musical chairs. When the music stops the candidate with the fewest votes is left standing and leaves the game. The game ends when one candidate gets enough of the other candidates’ votes for a majority – half plus one.

That’s how Peltola won in Alaska. More voters initially chose a Republican candidate – there were two major ones, including former governor Sarah Palin – but that didn’t matter. Given a second choice, many Republican voters opted for a Democrat over Palin, who is controversial in Alaska to say the least.

Ranked choice voting, sometimes also known as instant runoff, is labor intensive for election officials, and tallying the final result takes time. Unlike musical chairs, it’s not intuitive. In musical chairs, you may make a new friend when both of you go for an empty seat, but if you’re second to the seat, you’re out of the game. In ranked choice voting, someone else, not in the room, maybe a computer, is deciding if the seat is yours, using a method that is hard to explain.

I have an idea. Let’s talk about something simple instead. Like immigration reform. Or something uncontroversial. Like abortion. Nah – I’ll stick with ranked choice voting.

Next time, my Democratic and Republican insiders and I will handicap the November elections.

Dr. Terry Smith is a Political Science Professor at Columbia College and a regular commentator on KBIA's Talking Politics.