Another opportunity for the ‘City of Firsts:’ ranked-choice voting

Published 7:49 pm Wednesday, September 4, 2019


The Advocate-Messenger

Danville prides itself on being the “City of Firsts.” It had the first courthouse in Kentucky and the first U.S. Post Office west of the Allghenies; it was home to Dr. Ephraim McDowell, who was the first in the world to remove an ovarian tumor and have the patient survive; it was the first capital of Kentucky; it had the first college in the west (Centre College); and it’s home to the first ever state-supported school for the deaf, among many other firsts.

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Danville also prides itself on a high level of civic involvement. Simply put, there are a lot of people in the city who care how the city is run. There are other cities in Kentucky that can go months or years without members of the public participating in city commission meetings; in Danville, it’s not a question of whether there will be public participation, it’s a question of how much.

Given those two points of pride, we have a proposal out of left field for Danville’s officials and citizens to consider: What if Danville became the first city in Kentucky to implement ranked-choice voting for its local elections?

Ranked-choice voting is an alternative to instant run-off voting, which is the kind of voting you’re used to.

In an instant run-off election, the candidate who receives the most votes wins, regardless of the percentage of the votes. If there are four candidates and they split the vote 28/25/24/23, the candidate with 28 percent of the vote wins, even though almost three-fourths of voters chose someone else.

Instant run-offs are easy to understand and work to choose the candidate with the biggest base of strong supporters. It’s a pretty good system that has worked well in many elections. But there are also plenty of problems with it.

Instant run-offs can favor extreme candidates with small but passionate voter bases and put moderate candidates who might have broader but less intense support at a disadvantage.

Instant run-offs make it all too easy for people to feel like their vote didn’t matter, contributing to voter apathy.

And instant run-offs almost always force voters into thinking about politics as a black-and-white situation: You’re either for candidate A or you’re for candidate B — there’s no middle ground. That’s not a healthy way to think about government, which functions best when it’s run cooperatively with space for multiple ideas.

Ranked-choice voting (RCV) isn’t perfect either — no voting system is. But it addresses all of these problems and more.

In an RCV election with four candidates, voters don’t choose just candidate A, B, C or D. They rank them from one to four. An example voter might make candidate D their first choice, candidate B their second choice and candidate A their third choice. They could opt not to rank candidate C at all to ensure their vote never goes to that candidate.

When it’s time to count the votes, all the voters’ first choices are counted. If any candidate gets more than 50 percent of those first choices, they win and the election is over. If that doesn’t happen — remember our hypothetical 28/25/24/23 situation — then voters’ ranked choices come into play.

The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and their votes are redistributed to each voter’s second choice. A voter who ranked candidate D first and candidate B second doesn’t “lose” their vote because candidate D is out; instead, their vote counts for their second choice.

The 23 percent of votes that candidate D had don’t just go away, they wind up boosting the vote totals for the other three candidates, based on who voters liked more. In our hypothetical situation, the vote total could now be split three ways — 37/33/30, for example. And it would be possible for candidate B to take the lead if they had a lot of second-choice votes.

This process of eliminating a candidate and redistributing their votes continues until one candidate is left with a true majority of the votes. At the end of an RCV election, the winner is always someone whom a majority of voters said they had faith in to some extent.

RCV elections make it more likely that candidates with broad appeal can win with support from many different corners. RCV elections empower voters by giving them a stronger voice. And RCV elections leave the door open to think about government as a cooperative effort, not a winner-takes-all death match.

There are already seven states where some local municipalities have implemented RCV elections, and several more where RCV may soon exist. Just this year, Maine became the first state to implement RCV elections at the state level. But RCV has not made its way to the Bluegrass State yet.

One issue with RCV elections can be confusion at the beginning. Until voters are used to the new system, they might not fully understand how it works. Fortunately, RCV elections still allow you to vote the old way if you want — just mark your first choice and leave the rest blank. But given Danville’s demonstrated surplus of public involvement and investment in local government, we suspect any initial confusion problems would be even smaller here than elsewhere.

In the end, Danville’s engaged population would get a more engaged form of voting that could make them feel even better about the democratic process. And it would put the city once again on the cutting edge of something new.