Group hopes to bring ranked choice voting to Arizona cities

By: - November 12, 2021 2:43 pm

Illustration by Niyazz | iStock / Getty Images Plus

Ranked choice voting may be coming to a city near you, and possibly the state as a whole not long after that.

Voter Choice Arizona, a nonprofit advocacy group dedicated to bringing ranked choice voting to Arizona, is planning a campaign to put the system before voters next year. The campaign to add several cities to the growing list of jurisdictions across the United States that use ranked choice voting is intended as a precursor to overhaul elections on a statewide basis. 

Here’s how ranked choice voting works. In races with more than two candidates, rather than simply vote for one person, voters can select second and third choices as well. If no one gets a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and their second-place votes are reassigned to the other candidates. The process continues until a candidate exceeds 50% of the vote and is declared the winner.

Different states and localities use different variations of ranked choice voting. Maine uses it for all primary election races and in general elections for federal offices. In New York City, which recently used the system for the first time in its mayoral election, voters rank their choices in the partisan primary, but not in the general election. Other cities that use it for nonpartisan municipal races, there is only one election, with the winner determined through ranked choice voting.

Alaska and Maine are the only states to use it on a statewide basis. Alaskans voted to switch to ranked choice voting in 2020, and will use it for the first time in next year’s elections. Massachusetts voters rejected a similar proposal last year. Across the country, 43 jurisdictions use ranked choice voting, according to the advocacy group FairVote. Twenty-three of those cities are in Utah, which enacted a pilot program for ranked choice voting in 2019. Several countries also use ranked choice voting.

Most of the jurisdictions in the United States that use ranked choice voting are cities, and that’s where Voter Choice Arizona wants to start. Blake Sacha, a volunteer co-leader of the Voter Choice Arizona campaign and president of the nonprofit organization, said the group hopes to implement ranked choice voting statewide. To lay the groundwork for that, Voter Choice Arizona will seek to enact the system in two or three cities next year, either by having city councils refer it to the ballot or by putting it before the voters via citizen initiative. The campaign is exploring El Mirage, Flagstaff, Gilbert, Mesa, Peoria, Prescott and Tempe as possibilities, and has reached out to council members in each of those cities, Sacha said. 

Once at least some Arizonans have had an opportunity to see how it works, Voter Choice Arizona hopes to make a statewide push for ranked choice voting in 2024.

“Generally, people like ranked-choice voting when they try it, and they’re not sure about it until they try it,” Sacha said. “Having some local experience with it seems to be helpful for moving to statewide adoption. And also it gives us a chance to continue to educate people on the benefits of ranked-choice voting and building grassroots support.”

At the municipal level, Sacha said Voter Choice Arizona hopes to implement a system in which there would be one election for city races, which would serve as both a primary and runoff election. In places that use ranked choice voting for partisan races, the system usually involves an open primary in which all candidates for an office, regardless of party affiliation, appear on the same ballot, with the top four or five vote-getters advancing to the general election. 

Open primaries under ranked choice voting have a significant difference from a 2012 proposal to create a “top-two” primary system in Arizona, which voters overwhelmingly opposed. 

The 2012 proposal would have sent the top two-vote getters of an open primary, in which all candidates run on the same ballot, to the general election. That would allow for situations where both general election candidates were from the same party. That has often been the case in California, where the state’s top-two primary has led to general election matchups between two Democrats.

In contrast, ranked choice voting systems typically send four or five candidates to the general, making it highly unlikely that all candidates will hail from the same party.

Pros and cons

Supporters say ranked choice voting ensures that the winning candidate has the support of a majority of people, rather than prevailing with a plurality while being opposed by a majority of voters.

In Maine, for example, prior to the implementation of ranked choice voting, former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, won three-way races in both 2010 and 2014 with less than 50% of the vote against a Democrat and an independent. The same happened in 1986 in Arizona, when Republican Evan Mecham, the state’s only governor to be impeached, narrowly won after a Democratic-turned-independent joined the race against him and the Democratic nominee.

Sacha said the system expands choices and loosens the control that the two major parties have on elections. Under ranked choice voting, independents and third-party candidates such as Greens and Libertarians have better chances of winning and are more inclined to run. 

“What has happened nationwide and we believe would happen in Arizona is if that ranked-choice voting system is in place, more candidates will believe that they could win because the system isn’t rigged to allow only the two major party candidates,” Sacha said.

With ranked choice voting, voters are also more inclined to vote for the candidate they like best without worrying that they’re throwing their votes away or being a spoiler for another candidate, said David Patchen, who is leading the League of Women Voters of Arizona’s advocacy efforts for the issue. Voters who have a realistic view of their preferred candidate’s chances of winning — think Ralph Nader supporters who ultimately cast ballots for Al Gore because they preferred him over George W. Bush in 2000 — might instead opt to vote for a different candidate who can actually win the race. 

“Ranked choice voting allows them the opportunity to vote their conscience,” Patchen said. “Ranked choice voting allows you to vote sincerely instead of voting strategically. Now you’re no longer having to (choose between) the lesser of two evils or worrying about your wasted vote.”

Advocates say ranked choice voting could also save taxpayer money by reducing the number of elections that are needed. In some city races, for example, ranked choice voting would eliminate the need for runoff elections — the system is sometimes known as “instant runoff” voting — when no one gets a majority of the vote.

Tempe City Councilwoman Lauren Kuby, a ranked choice voting advocate who is on Voter Choice Arizona’s advisory board, noted that because the city’s charter requires a runoff election when there are seven or more candidates running for its at-large council seats, Tempe will need two municipal elections next year for the first time since 2014.

Opponents of ranked choice voting have a number of arguments against the system. Some argue that it violates the principle of one person, one vote, upon which democratic elections are based. 

Others argue that it’s more complicated for voters and is often difficult to explain in simple terms. Once the ballots are cast, ranked choice voting makes the counting and reporting of election results more complicated as well. New York City had major problems counting votes over the summer, though it’s debatable whether those problems were actually related to the city’s new ranked choice voting system. 

Patchen said much of the criticism of ranked choice voting comes from partisans who don’t like the way it dilutes the power that the Democratic or Republican parties have over elections. 

A long way to go

There’s a long way to go before ranked choice voting has a chance to become a reality in Arizona. 

Kuby said the easiest way to get ranked choice voting on the ballot in Tempe would be for the City Council to refer it. But she hasn’t found much interest among her colleagues. She said she’s reached out to two other council members — open meeting laws prevent her from contacting more outside of an official public meeting — and was rebuffed by both. 

That leaves the more difficult process of collecting thousands of signatures to refer it to the ballot. It’s too late to do so for the city’s election in March, but still a possibility for November. Kuby said overwhelming support for recent initiatives to ban anonymous “dark money” and reduce campaign contribution limits show that Tempe voters strongly favor electoral reforms.

“I have no doubt that it would pass. It’s just a matter of getting it on the ballot,” she said. 

Early polling suggests voters may be receptive to the idea. Paul Bentz, a pollster and consultant with the firm HighGround, conducted a poll in March for a group of organizations that are supporting ranked choice voting, including Voter Choice Arizona and Unite America. Nearly 74% supported eliminating taxpayer funding for partisan primary elections and 84% supported equalizing signature requirements for candidates of different parties to get their names on the ballot. 

After hearing a brief explanation of a ranked choice voting system for Arizona’s partisan elections that would send four candidates to the general election, just under 51% of respondents said they supported the idea. 

“I do think all of that data that we have seen across the board shows that there’s a significant appetite for electoral reform of some form. The question is, do voters understand ranked choice voting well enough to have that be the solution that they want to embrace?” Bentz said. 

Bentz said ranked choice voting advocates will likely have more success convincing voters to adopt the system for municipal elections because, except for Tucson, all Arizona cities already have nonpartisan elections. 

Voter Choice Arizona, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, has raised about $40,000 so far, which Sacha said is enough to draft sample ballot language and pay for legal work, but not enough to fund actual campaigns for ballot measures. If and when the group can get ranked choice voting on the ballot in a couple cities, Sacha said that would allow it to raise more money within those cities to support the campaigns. 

Until that happens, Voter Choice Arizona will continue raising awareness for ranked choice voting. The group’s monthly Zoom meeting on Nov. 17 will feature Andrew Yang as a guest speaker. Yang is an entrepreneur who earned a small but loyal following during his longshot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2019 and 2020, and who unsuccessfully ran for mayor of New York this year. He left the Democratic Party earlier this year to become an independent, and has become a vocal advocate for ranked choice voting. 

Voter Choice Arizona is working with a number of other advocacy organizations, including Unite America, RepresentUs, the Institute for Political Innovation and Rank the Vote. The League of Women Voters of Arizona isn’t yet part of any coordinated effort on behalf of ranked choice voting, Patchen said, but is likely to get involved soon.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”