What is Rank Choice Voting

San Juan County is one of the few counties in Washington that could implement Ranked Choice Voting without further legislation. With both a charter and being bi-partisan, San Juan checks of the requirements in state law. What exactly is Ranked Choice Voting, though, and what does it mean that it will be on the ballots as a charter amendment this November?

“We realized San Juan County was one of three counties that could adopt RCV right now,” Charter Review Commissioner Sharon Abreu, Orcas Island, said, explaining why the review committee decided to create an amendment.

The proposition is one of four the review commission has put forward. They include:

Establishing a New Position of Public Advocate for the Purpose of Helping Citizens Navigate the San Juan County System; Amending language in the County Charter to provide clarification regarding budget provisions for the Charter Review Commission (CRC), staff support requirements, and further resolution regarding the term length, procedures and duties of the CRC, and the role of the Prosecuting Attorney; Amending the current voting rules to include Ranked Choice Voting and Amending Signature Requirements Concerning Initiatives and Referendums.

To learn more about the Charter Review amendments visit https://www.sanjuanco.com/1764/Charter-Review-Commission.

The proposal puts RCV in the charter, however, the change would not go into effect until the state passed legislation. The benefit of waiting for the state is that once Washington does implement RCV, San Juan County would be ready to jump on board. Right now, according to Abreu, there are two bills that could allow all Washington counties to use the ranking system. Another benefit, Abreu said is that it would show representatives that islanders want RCV.

In the simplest terms, with Ranked Choice Voting, voters have the option to rank each candidate according to their preference, rather than marking just one candidate. All the votes are tallied, and then an instant runoff takes place: The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and the second choice candidate of those voters who voted for that candidate as their first choice will go into effect.

If a voter only marked one candidate, their first choice, that is counted, but since no other candidates were ranked by that voter, the ballot has no other choices to tally. It is a voter’s prerogative to only mark one candidate if that’s what they want to do. Likewise, they can mark only two or three candidates in a four or five-candidate race.

The result supports multiple parties with diverse candidates, said David Turnoy, chair of the San Juan County Democrats, and may lead to a more parliamentarian style of government.

Though the system sounds complex, Ben Chapman, FairVote Washington communications, said those who have tried it have overwhelmingly liked it and do not want to go back.

Lisa Ayrault’s, executive director for FairVote Washington, venture into Ranked Choice Voting began as she and her 7th-grade class discovered a book called the mathematics of voting and elections. The book explored a variety of electoral systems and the mathematics behind how they work.

“I realized there were a number of ways to vote, and the way we vote is the most outdated and worse way,” Ayrault said.

According to FairVote Washington, nearly half of the states use RCV in some capacity. Either some counties use it, it’s used in primaries, or for overseas voters, RCV has been around for some time.

San Juan County Auditor Milene Henley recommended the Charter Review Commissioners wait until the state adopted some form of RCV so the state would have the responsibility for writing the Washington Administrative Codes. “We would not want the county to have that burden,” Henley said. The county would be responsible for writing its own election codes should the county vote for RCV before any state legislation passed, and that is what Henley recommends against.

Henley also had concerns regarding audits. “Audits would be virtually impossible, and recounts would be all time consuming,” Henley said.

According to Ayrault, however, recounts in an RCV method require approximately the same time. The website for FairVote explains it like this: “In an RCV recount, the rankings for candidates placing below the candidate requesting the recount can be ignored, and each ballot should take a single review to determine for whom it should count. The top candidates are the only ones with a chance to win, so rankings for all other candidates can simply be ignored as if those candidates have already been defeated. Ballots can be sorted based only on which of those top candidates, if any, the ballot supports, and this process will generally conclude the recount.”

For Abreu, eliminating the fear of splitting the vote as in the case of Gore, Bush and Nader during the 2000 election, is a huge plus, and one that benefits all political parties.

“It is not a partisan thing,” Abreu said. “You end up getting a candidate that is really the preferred candidate of the people.”

Charter Review Commissioner Tom Starr, San Juan Island, disagrees. “It seems to subvert the clear-cut will of the people,” Starr said. Starr was in the minority who voted against the charter amendment proposal, and in his opinion stated to the review commission that he believed it obscures true debates and issue-driven dialogs among candidates and eliminates genuine binary choices between top-tier candidates.

Daniel Swartz, chair of the Republican Party of San Juan County, pointed out that Pierce county stepped into the RCV world only to reimplement the old voting system, as did Tacoma and California.

Abreu addressed Pierce county, noting that they had elected an official who was not the best candidate, however, her understanding was that that person would have won without RCV.

Maine has had state-wide RCV for several years with few issues according to Ayrault, Alaska begins state-wide RCV this year, and Washington presidential primates this year will also be by RCV.

One advantage of RCV, especially during primaries, is that with the high rate of candidates dropping out, RCV easily counts in the second third, and fourth rankings so that the voter’s vote still counts, according to Abreu. Ayrault also brought up candidates dropping out last minute, leaving voters feeling left out as their vote did not count.

One hesitancy Aryault has noticed is people being concerned that they won’t know enough about the candidates to rank them. Researching all the candidates does require more time investment, but those who support RCV argue that leads to a more educated voter, however, if they do not have time, a voter is not required to rank every or any candidate.

“There is a lot of skepticism about the election process in general,” Chapman said, adding that part of what FairVote has is trying to educate people against misinformation. There seems to be an idea that RCV is not one person one vote, Ayrault added, but it is absolutely one person, one vote.

Ayrault noted that FairVote has been a grassroots effort. “Local volunteers are driving the effort to bring ranked-choice voting to San Juan County. It’s neighbor-to-neighbor advocacy, at the farmer’s market and the county fair. These are folks who get that communities only thrive when democracy is healthy and voters are engaged,” she said.

Starr noted that the necessary repeated computer tallying of votes will increase suspicion of computer process manipulation and further distrust of elections.

“Elections are [currently] under attack because people don’t understand how the technology works,” Henley said. “RCV would increase the confusion. We want an educated electorate that has no reason to question what we’re doing.”

To encourage people to learn more, Henley and the Elections Office have invited citizens to observe the process and ask questions. The process is also streamed live on youtube. “We know people are watching because we can see people tuned in,” Henley added.

Those that support RCV as well as those that don’t, acknowledge current distrust in elections and agree it is imperative that elections be transparent. Abreu said she believes strongly there must always be a paper trail, and paper ballots should be used for that very reason.

“People need to have confidence in the voting system, but I believe that is a completely separate issue,” Abreu said.