Don't let critics scapegoat ranked choice

Peter Callaghan // Published November 18, 2008 in The News Tribune
Ranked choice voting causes antibiotic-resistant strep infections.

Is it a coincidence that until Pierce County switched to ranked choice voting, the economy was doing great?

Ranked choice voting lost the Sonics and is responsible for the Mariners losing 100 games.

Don’t even bring up global warming.

Oh, and ranked choice voting is to blame for every problem associated with the 2008 election, especially but not exclusively in Pierce County.

Long lines at the polls? A glacially slow vote count that would make Nigeria proud? The candidate you voted for losing? Ranked choice voting.

Is it any wonder that many elected officials and party brass have set their sights on an experimental voting system that has had all of one chance of succeeding? Scapegoats are wonderful things. Everyone agrees that none of the problems are their fault; they put all of the blame on something else and then hold a ritual sacrifice.

And by the time folks realize that many of the problems, failures and incompetencies still exist, ranked choice voting is long gone. We’ll have to shift to a new scapegoat – like poll voting or people who have the audacity to wait until Election Day to vote and mail their ballots. Or MRSA.

Before we start sharpening the knives, though, let’s look at why voters (that’s right, voters, not bureaucrats or socialists) put ranked choice voting into the county charter in 2006, and reaffirmed it in 2007. They did it because they had tried another system and hated it. That was the pick-a-party primary that came about because state Democratic, Republican and Libertarian party officials sued the voters to get rid of the long-running blanket primary.

Let’s review: The blanket primary allowed us to vote for whichever candidate we wanted in the primary. We could vote for a Democratic candidate for governor, a Republican for auditor and a Libertarian for Congress.

Voters loved it but parties hated it. They sued. We lost.

Under pick-a-party, voters had to choose a Republican ballot or a Democratic ballot and then had the freedom to vote for any candidate they wanted – as long as that person was of the same party. To make it worse, the parties did all they could to make sure that in key races there was only one candidate running.

Ranked choice voting was an antidote to that. No primary. All candidates appear together in November. Voters ranked them 1st choice, 2nd choice, 3rd choice.

Did it work? Depends on who you ask and what your measurements are. Democrat Pat McCarthy is leading Republican Shawn Bunney – which is likely what would have happened in a traditional August primary/November runoff system. And Dale Washam might be elected assessor-treasurer but it isn’t so far-fetched that in a pure name-ID race, this frequent candidate would have cleared a primary and been competitive in November.

While some voters were confused and others think the whole system is silly, the real foes of ranked choice voting are elected officials and party leaders. Not coincidentally, these are the same people who opposed it in the first place.

And some are the people who were charged by the county charter and their oaths of office to make it work. So they distract us from their own performance by asserting that the system was flawed and unworkable. Well, perhaps. But lots of local governments around the nation have forms of ranked choice voting. Not only does it work there, but a lot of voters like it.

If voters here want to get rid of ranked choice, that’s cool. They now have an option they didn’t have in 2006 or 2007: the top-two primary approved by the U.S. Supreme Court.

I just hope they don’t take the advice of people who were enemies of the system from the beginning, whose advice to voters was ignored in 2006, who were supposed to make it work but who now prefer to say, “I told you so.”