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Ranked-Choice Voting Backed in Midterm Ballot Measures, May Help “Crash-Proofing Our Democracy”

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Voters in Nevada and a handful of cities across the United States appear poised to expand the use of ranked-choice voting in the aftermath of Tuesday’s midterm elections. The election method allows voters to select multiple candidates in descending order of preference. It is used in many other countries, and supporters say it can reduce polarization and give more voice to independent voters. “The forces for ranked-choice voting are people who really care about our democracy,” says George Cheung, director of More Equitable Democracy, who says ranked-choice voting “allows for truer representation of who we are as a community.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We look now at how voters chose to expand the use of the election method known as ranked-choice voting during Tuesday’s midterm elections. Ranked-choice voting was on the ballot in the entire state of Nevada and many cities. It also shaped the outcome of races where it’s already in place. Supporters say it could reduce polarization in politics, give more voice to independent voters, among other things.

In Nevada, the “yes” vote leads for a ballot measure that would change the state’s elections to a system of a nonpartisan primary that allows voters to choose candidates from any party. After the primary, ranked-choice general elections would let voters rank their top five candidates who advanced.

Meanwhile, in Maine’s largest city of Portland, and in Evanston, Illinois, voters backed measures to use ranked-choice voting in city elections.

In Alaska, the state’s ranked-choice voting system will decide which candidate will represent the state in Congress, after the Senate race remained undecided when none of the candidates received half the vote. Voters in Alaska approved the new system in 2020. The 2022 August special election was the first time they were used in the state. In that election, Democrat Mary Peltola beat former governor and 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin to fill an open U.S. congressional seat. Peltola campaigned on reproductive rights and made history as the first Alaska Native in Congress.

For more, we’re joined by George Cheung, director of More Equitable Democracy, who’s been following all of this very closely.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! George, you’ve said ranked-choice voting is a “necessary step in the unsexy but critical work of crash-proofing our democracy.” Can you explain what you mean? Assume people haven’t even heard of ranked-choice voting, though it’s happening all over the country.

GEORGE CHEUNG: Yes. First, I want to say thank you, Amy, for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

Currently, we in the United States use a system for our elections called winner take all with a plurality rules, meaning that candidates, whoever has the most votes on Election Day wins that election, which means that a plurality could win, and a majority could, in fact, vote for a different candidate.

So, ranked-choice voting is a — both a ballot style and a tabulation method in which voters get to rank their choices, let’s say, one through five, or potentially as many candidates as there are on the ballot. And then, once you start tallying them, you look at if someone receives a majority of votes, and if someone does, then the election is over. If there isn’t, then usually the last-place candidate gets eliminated, and those votes get retabulated or reallocated to those voters’ second choices. And that process continues to repeat itself.

And so, in terms of, like, the actual reform itself, the best version of ranked-choice voting is when you don’t actually have a primary, when you have lots of choices in the general election for voters to choose on, with high turnout, and therefore, you get the most voice for those voters.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened in Alaska, so people can really understand how this played out.

GEORGE CHEUNG: So, in Alaska, which recently approved ranked-choice voting, it’s a top four system. So, in the primary, you would choose a candidate, and then, based on the results of the primary, four candidates go to the general election. And so, you had three fairly high-profile candidates with lots of name recognition, and candidates — I’m sorry, voters would just rank their choices.

There was a lot of enthusiasm for Mary Peltola, a Native Alaskan, who ended up getting the most number of votes, but looks like she didn’t get the majority. However, voters, because there is ranked-choice voting in Alaska, were allowed to rank their choices. And since it seems like it may play out very similarly to the special election, the bottom vote-getter will get eliminated, and those votes will get reallocated to other candidates. And because — I believe that Representative Peltola, since she is currently in office now, campaigned in a way that really engaged voters deeply, and said, you know, “If you don’t want to vote for me for your first choice, vote for me for your second choice.” So, that’s also a big benefit of ranked-choice voting, because it forces candidates to really continue to engage all voters, as opposed to saying, “Well, if you’re not going to vote for me, I’m just going to move on to the next voter.”

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Portland, Maine, and Evanston, Illinois.

GEORGE CHEUNG: So, one really important thing to know is that there are different versions of ranked-choice voting. And at the core, we really need to understand that we use a system called winner take all. This is a really old system that dates back into the 1400s. And so, beginning in about the 1800s, there were movements towards big reforms as the franchise began to expand to people who didn’t have wealth, to women, to people of color. And many countries and American cities ended up doing a lot of reforms in the late 1800s, early 1900s. And so, that really stopped by the time of World War II and the Red Scare, because a lot of people of color and progressives started to get elected.

What’s really exciting in Portland, Oregon, is the story of communities of color, led by the Coalition of Communities of Color in Portland, Oregon. There was a lot of frustration about the city government, because it was elected all at-large, meaning that you had to run, essentially, a congressional race in order to win. And there was a really meaningful charter review process that was run by the city where communities of color had a leadership role in educating themselves about the implications of electoral change, really engaged deeply to deliberate about what reforms they wanted to see, and actually came out with a recommendation. Seventeen out of the 20 commissioners agreed to put a form of ranked-choice voting on the ballot, a form known as proportional representation. That went to the ballot.

And on election night, the results show that the charter reform was winning by about 10 points, 55 to 45. The form of the reform would essentially create four multimember districts with ranked-choice voting, meaning that each district, you only need 25% of the vote share to win one of those seats. This really will open doors for communities of color, for low-income people, for renters to be fully represented in that legislative body. And just in terms of historical context, this form of ranked-choice voting hasn’t been enacted since New York City did in the mid-1930s.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what happened in Seattle, Washington.

GEORGE CHEUNG: Seattle, Washington had ranked-choice voting, as well as approval voting, on the ballot. This was being promoted by some —

AMY GOODMAN: And again, explain the difference between ranked-choice voting and approval voting.

GEORGE CHEUNG: Oh, right. Ranked-choice voting as I’ve already explained. Approval voting is a different system in which you essentially get to give like a Facebook like or a thumbs up to candidates, as many candidates as you want.

And so, there was an interesting head-to-head. Approval voting supporters gathered enough signatures to put it on the ballot. And the City Council, given that there wasn’t a deep deliberative process, that they had, let’s say, in Portland, decided that it was important for voters to have a choice, and put ranked-choice voting side by side with approval voting. So there were two questions: Shall there be change in terms of the system of elections? And if there is a change, which should it be? Approval or ranked-choice voting?

The first question, in terms of should there be a change, is still on the bubble. It’s about 50-50. And we won’t know for a couple of weeks in terms of the outcome of that election. But in terms of the choice between approval voting, which many, including myself, believe that it is potentially — could dilute the voting rights of communities of color, versus ranked-choice voting, which has shown to really allow for more voice for communities of color, voters supported ranked-choice voting by a margin of three to one. So, we’re really excited that ranked-choice voting, particularly proportional ranked-choice voting, is really gaining steam in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: George Cheung, if you can talk about — well, you now have ranked-choice voting in two state elections — right? — in Alaska and Maine, and 10 cities. Who are the forces for ranked-choice voting, and who is fighting against it?

GEORGE CHEUNG: I would say the forces for ranked-choice voting are people who really care about democracy. We know that our democracy is really in danger. It’s really fragile. And so, people from all walks of life are really coming out of the woodwork to really think deeply about what’s at stake, and really starting to have conversations, beginning at the local level, about how we can really strengthen democracy so that we all have choices that really reflect who we are.

Who’s really opposed to it are, frankly, the powers that be. The current system of winner take all, with plurality elections, really favors particularly fringe elements on the right, in particular, who have been able to really dominate the redistricting process, to draw districts that really favor incumbents and their own party, and really are really nervous about any change.

I think what’s really important to know is that ranked-choice voting and proportional representation doesn’t favor any particular party, but essentially is a system that allows for a truer representation of who we are as a community.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see any chance of a presidential election being ranked-choice voting?

GEORGE CHEUNG: Well, I would say that I think about winner-take-all elections as an old car that your grandma gave to you when you were in high school. Sure, you can change the ignition and rotate the tires, but in the end, it’s an old car. And ultimately, you have to buy a new car or find another different way to work. We will continue —

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re comparing ranked-choice voting to an electric car?

GEORGE CHEUNG: I would say that, you know, we have been using a system that has been in place since the 1400s, with very, very little change. And so, as we have become more of a multiracial society, we need to have rules that reflect that. And frankly speaking, winner-take-all elections with plurality rules are just at odds with achieving a multiracial democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: George Cheung, I want to thank you for being with us, director of More Equitable Democracy.

Next up, “Carbon Billionaires.” Stay with us.

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