Historic change may be coming to a ballot near you

Voters fill out paper ballots at First Mennonite Brethren Church on West 21st Street on Election Day 2016.
Voters fill out paper ballots at First Mennonite Brethren Church on West 21st Street on Election Day 2016. The Wichita Eagle file photo

The Kansas Legislature is about to consider a radical change in voting.

It’s called “ranked-choice voting,” and if it passes, you’ll be asked not just to vote for one candidate when you fill out your ballot, but to rank candidates by your order of preference. And those second and third choices could end up getting counted and even deciding close elections.

“This year, you could see major changes (in voting), maybe the biggest in 100 years in this state since women got the right to vote,” said Russell Fox, a professor of political science at Friends University.

House and Senate lawmakers will hold a special hearing on ranked-choice voting on Oct. 27. If they like what they hear, they could fast-track a bill for the session, which begins in January.

Ranked-choice voting “is kind of like an instant runoff, done with one ballot; a lot of large cities use it,” said Rep. Keith Esau, R-Olathe, chairman of the House Elections Committee and a candidate for secretary of state.

Cities using ranked-choice voting now include San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., and Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn.

Voters in Maine approved the system for statewide use starting next year, but the Supreme Court there ruled it partially conflicts with the state Constitution and can only be used in federal and primary elections.

How it works

Here’s how ranked-choice voting works: In elections with more than two candidates, voters rank the candidates on the ballot from the one they like best to the one they like least.

If no candidate gets a majority of votes when the voters’ first choices are counted, the candidate in last place would be eliminated. Then, election officials would count the second choices of voters who picked the eliminated candidate and give those votes to the remaining candidates.

The counting continues on that track until one candidate exceeds 50 percent of the votes.

Some jurisdictions limit the number of choices. For example, San Francisco has voters choose their top three and the winner is the one with the most votes after the third round of counting. Some places have voters rank all the candidates and keep counting until they have a majority winner.

The main idea is to guarantee that whomever is elected has at least lukewarm support from a majority of the electorate, Esau said. That contrasts with the current system where voters choose their top pick only and a candidate can win in a crowded field with far less than a majority of the vote.

Ranked-choice voting might improve the overall tone of Kansas campaigns, Esau said.

Candidates would have to try to broaden their appeal to a larger segment of the electorate if they knew they might need second-choice voters to win, he said.

“You don’t want to really attack your opponent because you want their voters to vote for you in second,” Esau said.

Also, ranked-choice voting could “stop people from getting in the race when they know they don’t have any chance of winning,” he said. “Basically it negates the spoilers.”

A game changer

Among the disadvantages, “there are people who think it doesn’t really give you a true majority or may knock the person who was most accepted off, because they’re everybody’s second choice, but they get the low count on the (first) ballot.”

For example, a third-party candidate might get nearly all the second-choice votes, but get eliminated on the first count as the low vote-getter in a three-person race.

Also, it could delay election results.

“In a close race, we might not know the results until after the canvass,” he said. That is when an election board rules on disputed ballots and certifies the final results, usually about a week after Election Day.

Most of the state’s voting equipment is already designed to handle multiple-choice balloting, Esau said.

But it’s almost certainly too late to implement a major change for next year’s Kansas state elections. If approved, ranked-choice voting would probably start in 2020, Esau said.

Fox said he doesn’t think ranked-choice voting would have much effect on the outcomes of general elections until and unless Kansas gets a strong third party or a particularly compelling independent candidate in a major race. It doesn’t usually come into play when there are only two dominant candidates in a race, because one or the other is likely to get a majority.

However, he said it could have a big effect in primaries, which tend to draw a larger pool of candidates and candidates with similar views can cut into each others’ voting strength.

For example, House Minority Leader Jim Ward and former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer could split progressives in next year’s Democratic primary for governor, which could open a path to victory for the more socially conservative candidate, former Agriculture Secretary Josh Svaty, Fox said.

Ranked-choice voting would make it harder for Svaty because progressives are more numerous, and Brewer and Ward voters would probably choose the other as their second choice.

Mixed record of success

San Francisco has used ranked-choice voting in local elections since 2004, said Francis Neely, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University.

“I think the majority of voters don’t think about it,” he said. “I think it’s not that big a deal to most voters who cast a ballot.”

He said one of his initial concerns was that ranking choices complicates voting, which could disadvantage those with less education and less time to spend researching candidates.

Through exit polling and other research, he did find a disparity in ballot error rates between precincts of different demographics.

However, the research also showed the error rates were roughly the same whether voters ranked their choices or not. The error rate was highest in school board races, where voters were asked to choose multiple candidates for multiple seats, he said.

For candidates, one observation he’s reached is that “the best way to win is not to be an adversarial campaigner.”

In one of the rare cases where the second count displaced a frontrunner, in Oakland, the candidate who won the first ballot had used traditional negative campaign techniques, while the candidate who caught him on the second ballot had focused more on building coalitions and her own positives.

He said he sees that as a positive compared with the more adversarial system of the past. In voting, “you’re supposed to reach a consensus of everybody’s preferences, not just their first choice,” Neely said.

Not every experience with ranked-choice voting has been as positive.

Burlington, Vermont, adopted it for mayoral elections in 2005 and then voted it out five years later after only two election cycles.

In the 2009 election, the Republican candidate got the most votes on the first ballot, but was eventually defeated by a Progressive Party candidate when the election went all the way to voters’ third choices.

“That’s basically the problem with that,” said Garrison Nelson, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont. “A determined minority can outvote a less-determined majority. That’s why we dropped it.

“You’ve got a dedicated minority in Kansas, we know well, that’s why Sam Brownback is your governor.”

Brownback won election in 2016 with slightly less than a majority, which would have triggered a count of some voters’ second choices if ranked-choice voting had been in effect then.

Under that scenario, Libertarian Keen Umbehr would have been eliminated on the first-choice vote. And, given the ideological similarities between Republicans and Libertarians, it’s likely the Republican Brownback would have still beaten Democrat Paul Davis.