- Special Projects
What do judges for the Best Picture Academy Award have in common with the state of Maine?
Both use ranked choice, or instant runoff, voting systems, which allow voters to list candidates in order of preference.
Some say it’s an electoral system worth exploring in Hawaii because it can result in winners who have broader support in races with three or more candidates.
With ranked choice, voters can indicate not only their top choice but second choice, third choice and so on down the ballot. If no candidate receives a majority of top-choice ballots, elections officials eliminate the lowest vote-getter and a new round of counting ensues.
In the second tally of ballots, top-choice votes for the last-place candidate are eliminated and those voters’ second-choice picks are converted into top-choice picks for the remaining candidates. This continues round by round, with the lowest vote-getter eliminated each round, until someone wins by having half of all remaining top-choice votes.
When there are a lot of candidates, it can take several rounds to declare a winner.
Some political scientists question how well the system actually works in American elections. Voters may not rank enough candidates to have a say in the final outcome, for example.
Still, a few Hawaii lawmakers have proposed legislation to use ranked choice voting for nonpartisan or special elections, and it has been endorsed by the good government group Common Cause Hawaii.
“Because of the way the votes are tallied, it really does promote fairness,” said Corie Tanida, head of Common Cause. “The results are more grounded in majority rules.”
Maine is the only state to adopt the system in all elections, but a handful of other states use it in special elections. Several cities use ranked choice voting, with the particulars varying by jurisdiction.
Hawaii lawmakers have proposed using the system in a couple of different ways.
A 2016 bill would have used it in primaries, special elections and general elections, but it never made it to a hearing. A set of bills introduced in 2017 would have only instituted ranked choice voting in special congressional elections.
In special congressional elections in Hawaii, candidates of all parties run on a single ballot with the top vote-getter winning regardless of percentage. This is what allowed then-Republican Charles Djou to win the 2010 special election for the 1st Congressional District with 39.4 percent of the vote when two Democrats took 58.4 percent of the vote combined.
If ranked choice voting had been used, it’s possible one of the Democrats would have emerged as the winner.
One of the 2017 bills would have required the Office of Elections to allow voters to rank candidates for a special congressional election, although officials could have limited the number of candidates voters were allowed to rank if the office deemed it wasn’t feasible to allow voters to rank them all.
The bill required elections officials to educate voters and post sample ballots a week in advance of the special elction.
Sen. Karl Rhoads, who introduced one of the 2017 bills, said he thinks the system makes sense in races with many candidates — not only special congressional elections, but also nonpartisan county council or Office of Hawaiian Affairs races.
“Especially in special elections where there’s no primary … you sometimes get people who had very little popular support,” Rhoads said. “It just makes it such a crapshoot.”
Ranked choice voting is thought to give third-party or independent candidates a better shot since voters can pick more than one candidate. In theory, you’d still have a shot as a lesser-known candidate, Tanida said.
Proponents believe ranked choice voting would cut down on strategic voting, such as voting for a candidate who’s more likely to win instead of the candidate whose beliefs align most closely with their own.
The method is also thought to reduce the “spoiler effect,” which can occur when two candidates with similar views split votes of a like-minded electorate. When this happens, a third candidate with opposing views can win, even though more voters may generally support the views of the two similar candidates.
Ranked choice voting successfully eliminated the spoiler effect in a 2010 Oakland election, according to an opinion piece in Newsweek.
Jean Quan, a progressive, was elected the city’s first female mayor in a 10-way race. She beat a heavily favored, conservative Democrat after polling a distant second in the first vote count, where only voters’ first preferences were tallied.
She ultimately won because she aligned herself with the other candidates. After additional rounds of tallying, Quan received votes from a candidate who initially polled in third place.
Fairvote, a national advocate for election reforms, wrote in testimony on one of the 2017 Hawaii bills that fewer people are skipping city elections in San Francisco and Oakland since the method has been implemented there.
It’s possible for a candidate who’s the top choice of relatively few voters to win in a ranked choice election, depending on how many candidates voters choose to rank.
The Newsweek piece pointed to a 21-candidate San Francisco district supervisor election in 2010. Malia Cohen, who placed third in the first round of vote tallying, won after 20 rounds. Just 20 percent of voters picked Cohen in their top three, according to an SF Gate column.
There’s also the issue of voter fatigue, meaning that voters may not take advantage of the opportunity to rank enough candidates. Ballots cast by nearly 30 percent of voters in a 2011 San Fransisco mayoral election didn’t make it to the final round because their top three choices had been eliminated and they didn’t rank their four choices and beyond, according to a paper published by political scientists Craig Burnett and Vladimir Kogan.
A skeptical opinion piece published in Democracy Journal argues that it’s unlikely that ranked choice voting will actually wrest back much power from Democrats and Republicans in America’s two-party system.
Tanida of Common Cause Hawaii says the organization still supports some form of ranked choice voting in spite of the criticism.
Hawaii would have to figure out which races would work best with ranked choice voting and what safeguards may be needed, Tanida said. So far the bills that have proposed implementing the method haven’t gotten far.
“It comes down to education because (ranked choice voting) is a new system,” she said. “I think it should be discussed, but it just hasn’t had the opportunity.”
Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to firstname.lastname@example.org and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.
Our small newsroom believes wholeheartedly that news and information is a public service – not something to be hidden behind paywalls or diluted by ads. Your donations ensure that our reporting remains free and accessible to all communities, regardless of a person’s ability to pay. For a limited time become a Civil Beat donor and we’ll throw in a limited-edition Civil Beat t-shirt!