Tools for Thwarting Voter Disenfranchisement: Ranked Choice Voting and Early Voting

How two crucial voting reforms can protect the right to vote for countless Americans

Voting sign taped to a wall. Courtesy Keith Ivey via flickr.

by Cecily Hines and Miles Rapoport

When three top candidates dropped out of the March 3rd Democratic presidential primaries less than 48 hours before voting began in some key states, people who had voted early for one of those candidates were frustrated that their votes now would not count. Subsequently, there were calls to abolish early voting entirely to avoid the problem.

Early voting helps provide the current physical distancing necessary, and it will make future elections more representative of our diverse society. And for those concerned about risks with mail-in voting, early voting is an obvious complement or alternative.

Then in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak, there came real momentum for early voting and vote by mail, in order to allow as many options as possible for people to vote while still keeping physical distancing in place. This seemingly two-dimensional conflict then became more complex.

Wisconsin’s primary was thrown into disarray when the Governor’s efforts to postpone in person voting and to extend the dates for absentee voting, in order to protect voters from the coronavirus, were rebuffed by that state’s supreme court and by the U.S. Supreme Court. Coupled with widespread problems in absentee ballot logistics, and the resulting long lines at a reduced number of polling places, significant disenfranchisement was predicted. From the drama surrounding just one state’s primary, it appears the November 2020 elections are at risk. Could early voting coupled with RCV be a solution, for this year and into the future?

Clearly, early voting enables many more people to vote than does voting on a single school day during the work week, and the policy has made real advances. Close to 40 states now have some form of early voting, but the scope and process varies widely among them. The current crisis provides an opportunity for all 50 states to step up and offer early voting this fall, to include at least two weeks to vote. Just this past week, Virginia enacted legislation providing for voting a full 45 days before election day. Early voting helps provide the current physical distancing necessary, and it will make future elections more representative of our diverse society. And for those concerned about risks with mail-in voting, early voting is an obvious complement or alternative.

In order to protect against candidate changes rendering an early vote moot, the answer is quite simple: ranked choice voting (“RCV”). If the early voter is able to rank the choices on the ballot, then if her candidate were to drop out, that voter’s second (and perhaps third) choice would be counted. This system also results in winners with broader electoral support.

The difference that RCV can make was apparent in several 2019 elections. In Maine, the only state that has instituted ranked choice voting at the state level, the campaign to win RCV featured the fact that Paul Le Page, an unpopular governor, had been elected — twice — without winning a majority of support by the voting population. When voters began to understand how RCV could prevent candidates with only minority support from winning, they rallied around the initiative, and successfully implemented it in their 2018 elections.

In the town of Fall River, Massachusetts, the corruption-plagued and widely unpopular mayor, Jasiel Correia was recalled from office, and on the same day, on the same ballot, he was re-elected as mayor! This happened when 60% of the voters recalled the mayor, but with five candidates running to fill the office, and votes split among the five, Correia came out with 35% of the votes, enough to win the election. With RCV, such an outcome would never have happened.

In addition to complementing early voting, RCV supporters cite a number of other benefits. With two-party dominance, and the sharp discouragement it holds for third parties by casting them as spoilers, many voters feel they have very limited choices. This is just one more reason that people stay home.

Wider usage of RCV should also help to return campaigns to more civility in discourse, as candidates will need to appeal to a broader swath of the population in order to secure second or third choice votes. Paying a price for demonizing opponents results in reducing candidates’ impulses for harsh messaging and promoting richer, more informative dialogue among candidates.

Those arguing against RCV claim it is too complicated. In fact, here in Minneapolis and St. Paul, where the system has been in effect for over a decade, Fair Vote Minnesota polled voters after the 2017 elections. Results showed that 92 percent of Minneapolis voters and 83 percent of St. Paul voters — across all income, ethnic, and age groups — said RCV was simple to use and that the vast majority preferred RCV to the old system.

Increasing understanding of the benefits of RCV is giving it some real momentum in a number of places; it may actually be “catching fire.” RCV is already used by numerous colleges and universities, private non-governmental organizations, and a number of cities around the country. Minnesota continues to lead. It came extremely close to enacting RCV statewide in the 2019 legislative session, and this year, just before the coronavirus brought a halt to nonessential legislative activity, the legislation had passed three committee votes in the House. In Massachusetts a successful RCV petition has been certified, bringing that initiative one step closer to being on the ballot in November 2020.

Coupling early voting in all 50 states with RCV would have a number of major benefits, both in this November’s crisis response and in the future. Together, these two reforms would: 1) enable citizens to vote more conveniently and safely, 2) ensure that an early vote would not be wasted if a candidate were to drop out; 3) end the ability of a minor candidate to be a spoiler and reduce the stigma for third parties, 4) increase civility and decrease attack messaging in campaigns, and 5) deliver a winner that has secured over 50% support from the voters.

The current crisis is forcing governors, state legislatures, and election officials to think more broadly and creatively about how elections ought to be run. Early voting and RCV are a paired set that should be part of an improved system of the future.

Miles Rapoport is the Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School. He previously served as Secretary of State for Connecticut and as President of Demos.

Cecily Hines is Senior Program Advisor, Senior Practice Fellowship in American Democracy at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School. She previously served as general counsel to several global medical device companies and as President of Minneapolis Parks Foundation.




Challenges to Democracy is the blog of the Democratic Governance Program at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School.

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