Thursday, January 01, 2009

Let's learn from Ranked Choice Voting in Pierce County

By Sen. Eric Oemig (D-Kirkland)

Elections in Washington state tend to serve up a good dose of rancor, confusion and frustration. And not just from the candidates. The way we vote usually stirs commotion all by itself.

Remember February's nearly worthless presidential primary? If you voted for a Democrat your vote counted for zilch because the party ignored the primary in its nominating process. And Republicans used the primary to allocate only half of their delegates to their convention.

Our state's primary system has long been a source of controversy. Here's a fun fact. Only a quarter of the legislative races on this year's "top two" primary ballot even fielded more than two names to begin with. It makes you wonder why we spend millions staging a primary in the first place.

And that's why it's worth taking a closer look at Pierce County's first crack at using Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) in its general election county races. In these few races there was no primary. Each candidate's name appeared on an RCV ballot at the general election and voters ranked them by preference to produce a winner.

No doubt, there are legitimate questions to be asked about why it cost so much to implement. And, more importantly, changes must be made to simplify the RCV ballot. For instance, if there is only one candidate, you should not be required to rank him three times. (That foolish source of confusion was an artifact of using an out-of-state vendor who was unwilling to print a better ballot. For instance, if fewer than three candidates are on the ballot, a standard ballot card should be used.)

But let's remember that change — even good change — can be uncomfortable at first. Moreover, these growing pains are no cause for scrapping Ranked Choice Voting after just one election.

Let's remember why it was tried in Pierce County to begin with — because voters asked for.

And though some voters have expressed frustration, the RCV election was well executed. RCV is not slower to tabulate than standard voting. In close elections, with mail-in ballots, the lead will switch back and forth, and sometimes the winner will take days or weeks to determine. Pierce County Auditor Pat McCarthy recently testified before the Senate Government Operations and Elections Committee and called the election "an amazing success."

Why? Because overwhelmingly, voters understood their RCV ballot and the processes to run the election worked as designed. What's more, voters had more meaningful choices, candidates waged more positive campaigns and the cost to taxpayers was the same as the top two primary. Those are benefits worth keeping.

RCV version one was a success worth building upon. A study of the Pierce County experience is being conducted by the University of Washington and Western Washington University and we'll know the results soon.

We need to keep and improve on Ranked Choice Voting if we are to hone in on the best system for voters and democracy.



At 11:20 AM, Blogger Bob Richard said...

This is a very valuable contribution to the discussion of RCV. I do have one minor quibble, though. If write-in votes are permitted, you can't print a old-fashioned plurality ballot when there are just one or two (non write-in) candidates. It's still an RCV election and the write-in votes have to be treated just like any other vote.

Also, I don't understand the comment about the situation where there is only one (non write-in) candidate. Do Pierce County's rules really require that this person be ranked 2nd and 3rd as well as 1st?


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