Ranked-choice voting could be the answer

// Published May 28, 2008 in Arizona Republic

With another round of predictably low-turnout municipal elections behind us in Mesa, Tempe, Queen Creek and Phoenix, and a new one awaiting Chandler voters this fall and Gilbert voters next spring, some political reformers are suggesting there's a better way.

They call it ranked-choice voting, or instant-runoff voting, and they claim it boosts turnout by eliminating the need for costly, tedious runoff campaigns.

It's worth a look for several reasons. Ranked-choice voting seems to be gaining attention and favor around the country. San Francisco went to RCV in 2004 and Minneapolis and Santa Fe are making the transition. And it may be coming to the Valley; an election-reform group has succeeded in getting RCV on the fall ballot in Glendale.

Here's how it works: If, for example, three candidates qualify for the mayoral ballot, that ballot allows voters to select a first choice and a second choice. When all the first choices are counted, if one of the candidates fails to garner a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Then the second choices from the ballots cast for the eliminated candidate are tallied. A winner emerges in this “instant runoff.”

The more candidates there are running for a given position, the more ranked choices voters will have on their ballots.

Tempe resident and Arizona Republic columnist Dave Wells, who holds a doctorate in political economy and public policy and teaches at Arizona State University, is a vocal proponent of ranked-choice voting. He noted in a recent column in The Tempe Republicthat that city's four City Council runoff candidates had to raise nearly $45,000 between the primary and runoff elections, much of it from special interests, to get and keep voters' attention.

Still, only about 22 percent of Tempe's registered voters bothered to cast ballots in the runoff, despite a lively debate among the candidates over the city's property-tax rate.

In Mesa, where there was a vigorous mayoral runoff to replace outgoing Mayor Keno Hawker, turnout was a disappointing 26 percent.

Presumably, many of those who missed the runoff had thought the March primary was the “city election” and didn't realize they were supposed to go back to the polls two months later.

Defenders of the existing system say high turnout is overrated, that voters who are tuned in to municipal issues and candidates — so-called high-efficacy voters — are the ones who should decide local elections. Making it easier for less interested — and less informed — citizens to cast ballots can result in bad local government, they argue.

But state law already is moving more municipal elections to the fall, when they coincide with state and national elections, so many more people will be casting ballots that include everything from the presidential race to city council contests. Faced with long primary- and general-election ballots, wouldn't it be better to let voters focus on their municipal election in November via ranked-choice voting?