WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet is sponsoring legislation that would help defray the costs that states might incur should they make a transition to ranked choice voting, hoping that the election method will dampen a hyperpartisan political atmosphere across the country.
Momentum is building behind RCV as more governments nationwide are experimenting with the idea, but the system has had mixed results in Colorado.
One of the most popular election methods is plurality voting, in which the candidate with the most votes in a single casting of ballots is the winner. In plurality voting the winner does not necessarily need to have a majority — 50 percent plus one vote — to prevail.
In 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton won a plurality of votes in Colorado but not a majority, yet the plurality was enough for her to win the state's nine Electoral College votes.
The other popular election method is majority voting. If no candidate wins 50 percent plus one vote, a runoff is held between the top two vote getters.
In a hypothetical race with five candidates using RCV, the voter would rank their preferences one through five. When the ballots are counted, if a candidate comes away with a majority after the initial count, that candidate is the winner. But in the event that does not happen, a new process is implemented whereby a new vote tally is created.
First, the candidate who finished last is removed from the contest. Voters who supported that individual as their first choice have their second choice from their ranking applied to the remaining field and a new tally is performed. If a candidate then gains a majority after this "second count," a winner is declared. If not, the process is repeated until there is a majority winner.
During his unsuccessful campaign for president, Bennet often lamented the sharp edges of the current political atmosphere and hopes RCV could help shift the mood by changing how candidates must strategize.
“A partisan fever is imperiling our democracy,” Bennet said in a press release. “I believe ranked choice voting can lower the temperature by giving voters more choices, discouraging slash-and-burn politics, and rewarding candidates who appeal to a broad majority of voters. Our bill encourages states and local governments that wish to adopt this promising reform.”
If passed, the legislation would provide $40 million in grants to be distributed among states that choose to transition to RCV.
In many ways, RCV is similar to the runoffs in majority voting. Runoff elections essentially force those who supported the least popular candidates to reassign their support to one of the top vote getters. For that reason, RCV is also sometimes referred to as "instant runoff voting," although there are differences between RCV and true runoffs.
Supporters of RCV argue that the process requires candidates to broaden their appeal and by doing so will seek more common ground among voters as opposed to trying to find wedge issues. They also believe the rules would encourage more third-party or unaffiliated candidates to run, bringing wider choices to the ballot.
Bennet's bill was introduced with Sen. Angus King, Independent from Maine, a state that is poised to use RCV in the 2020 presidential election. Colorado, meanwhile, is one of three states that allows municipal governments to use RCV if they choose to do so, according to rankedchoicevoting.org.
For example, Telluride used RCV in the mayoral election last year, and city officials published a tutorial video to help voters understand the changes and navigate their ballot.
Aspen voters were early adopters of RCV, and then also became early rejecters.
"Aspen voters — by a 70 percent margin — decided to amend the city charter in 2007 to make way for [RCV]," the Aspen Daily News reported in 2010. "However, after seeing the system in action, those same voters have changed their minds."
Opponents to RCV argue the method can confuse voters and might allow politicians to muddy the waters or be vague on issues rather than provide real choices to the populace.
"In the end, a voter’s ballot might wind up being cast for the candidate he ranked far below his first choice — a candidate to whom he may have strong political objections and for whom he would not vote in a traditional voting system," the conservative Heritage Foundation noted in a recent policy brief.
In 2016, then-Governor of California Jerry Brown vetoed a bill to expand the use of RCV in the state. In rejecting the measure, Brown said he believed the method "deprives voters of genuinely informed choice."