Feb 09, 2024

INSIGHT KANSAS: Who’s afraid of ranked choice voting?

Posted Feb 09, 2024 10:00 PM
written by: Michael Smith - professor at Emporia State University. Courtesy photo
written by: Michael Smith - professor at Emporia State University. Courtesy photo

Why on earth are Kansas Legislators seeking to ban Ranked Choice Voting (RCV)?

Sponsored by Senator Chase Blasi of Wichita, Senate Bill 368 would prohibit this practice, which is becoming increasingly popular in many U.S. cities and states.  In a recent hearing, the senate heard conflicting testimony.  Proponents argue that RCV is a better way to select the voters’ true preferences, while opponents dismiss it as confusing.  The bill is specifically targeted at Kansas cities and counties– yet another state attempt to usurp power from its localities for no clear reason.

Last year, the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee considered a bill that would have authorized RCV.  Most likely, this is because Republicans on the committee believe that RCV might well have led to the election of Republican Derek Schmidt to the governorship in 2022, instead of Governor Laura Kelly being re-elected.  

RCV is one of many alternative voting systems which can better-represent the preferences of voters.  Kansas currently uses the plurality system for most offices.  A candidate getting the most votes wins a race, even if their vote totals fall short of a majority.  For example, in 2022 Kelly won 49.5% of the vote, Schmidt won 47.4%,  Independent Dennis Pyle won 2%, and Libertarian Seth Cordell won 1.1%. The votes for Pyle and Cordell were essentially “wasted” votes, a derogatory term often used to discourage votes from supporting Independent and third party candidates.  Imagine if each Pyle and Cordell supporter could have cast a “backup” vote in the event that their candidate did not get enough votes to win.

This is how RCV works.  While it is new to many Americans, it is not complicated.  Voters simply rank their choices in order.  If a candidate does not have any chance of winning, their voters’ votes are re-cast for their second choices.  Additional choices may be taken into account, depending on circumstances.  Anyone who has ever made a list putting priorities in order has already done this–just not at the ballot box.  As with the example above, the primary benefit of RCV is to allow voters to back Independent and third party candidates without the fear that they are casting “wasted” votes.  No city in Kansas has RCV, but the Kansas Democratic Party has used it in their presidential primaries and caucuses since 2020.

The plurality method does a poor job of translating voters’ preferences into policy.  Most state house, state senate and Congressional districts are uncompetitive between the two parties, so candidates need only placate their party base in order to avoid being “primaried.”  This pushes the parties toward their respective extremes. Third-party and Independent candidates serve primarily as “spoilers” for the major parties, not serious alternatives for frustrated voters. Other alternatives worth exploring include approval voting, in which voters may vote for as many candidates as they choose, and proportional representation, in which seats are divided up in proportion to the percentage of votes cast for the parties.  Political science studies confirm that these alternatives often do a far better job of matching election results to voters’ true desires.  For example, in 2021 the City of St. Louis held its first mayoral election with approval voting, and it went fine.  The new system helped to break down the city’s notorious, racially-divided voting behavior.  RCV is also proving popular statewide in Maine and Alaska.

It would be foolish to preemptively ban a reform that is showing real promise in other states.  RCV deserves a second look here in Kansas.