Who did you vote for the last time you stepped into a voting booth? If you’re like most voters in the state of Connecticut, it was probably for a member of either the Democrat or Republican parties.
Across the country, however, there is a growing distaste for the two-party system that dominates U.S. elections at all levels. This is particularly true for those whose political ideologies do not perfectly align with those of these major party candidates, voters on the political margins, or those whose main concerns are among topics not usually central to major party campaigns.
According to a Pew Research survey of voters in August of last year, 27% of Americans hold unfavorable views of both the Democrat and Republican parties, the highest that number has been in decades. Independents or those who are unaffiliated with either major party were most likely to disapprove of both parties (47%) as were voters under 50 (35%).
In Connecticut, the number of registered voters who identify themselves as members of third parties or as unaffiliated voters is close to equal (960,231 active voters) to those who belong to one of the two major parties (1,276,785) and more than either Democrats or Republicans on their own.
That same Pew survey also found that younger voters wish there were more candidates from varied parties they could support.
For those voters, election day may feel more like a chore, an effort more to keep someone you dislike out of office rather than an opportunity to support a candidate you agree with or feel passionate about, particularly at the national level. Exit polling done by The Morning Consult during the 2020 Presidential election found that 44% of Biden voters were really casting a vote against a second term for Donald Trump.
Those in contentious districts might also feel pressure to support a candidate deemed more likely to win, rather than “throw their vote away” on an ideological underdog.
This is what supporters of Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) say the concept is intended to correct: a system that purports to offer voters a chance to vote their conscience and better representation of the electorate. It is gaining in popularity and even made it part way into the debate in the Connecticut General Assembly this past session.
But what might it mean for voters here in Connecticut?
How does it work?
Rank Choice Voting (RCV) is a method that allows a person to vote for any number of candidates (including none, if they choose) and rank those candidates from most to least preferred. Votes are initially tabulated based on the first choice of all voters. If no candidate receives a majority of votes (50% plus one vote), then the votes are counted again.
In the second round, the candidate who received the smallest number of votes is dropped and all ballots with that candidate as the primary choice are given to the voter’s second choice. This continues until a candidate reaches a majority. The hope is that no vote is “wasted” on a less viable candidate while still allowing voters to support a candidate they most closely agree with.
Ranked choice voting is also sometimes referred to as “instant runoff,” because it is designed to eventually reach a majority without the need for follow-up elections.
All in favor?
Ranked Choice Voting has so far mostly been instituted for small municipal elections. Twelve states across the country — including neighboring New York and Massachusetts — have at least one city or town utilizing Ranked Choice ballots in local races. So far, only two states — Alaska and Maine — have introduced it statewide.
“I think there’s two reasons [RCV] seems to be more popular right now,” says Ryan Kirby, Director of Public Policy for the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, a national non-profit that builds resources for election administrators in the process of implementing the system. “I think the first one is that there are fewer obstacles at a municipal level just because you typically only need to get either an ordinance passed or if there’s a charter amendment, whatever that process is.”
Hyper-local races have a smaller electorate; fewer people to teach how to use the system, and lower costs, both for educational and advocacy campaigns and costs to upgrade equipment.
“The other reason is that we find that America tends to take the laboratories of democracy approach,” Kirby continues. “A lot of bigger jurisdictions like to see it happen at a smaller level and I think that’s some of the strategy we’ve seen from advocates is that, well, if we can try it in a smaller place, see how it goes, how does that work with this jurisdiction and then, if it works well, then expanding from there”
In Connecticut, most of the state’s third parties support Ranked Choice Voting, though not all. Those who do tell CII that while they might agree with the state’s major parties in some ways, they disagree in numerous and meaningful ways and want the chance to bring their viewpoints to a larger stage.
For example, members of the Democrat and Green Parties might both support greater investment in social programs or increasing taxes but might disagree with which programs are the most important or how to spend any increased revenues.
Meanwhile, liberty-minded Republicans and Libertarians might ostensibly agree on the principle of individual rights but disagree on social issues and spending, among other topics.
Spokespeople for third parties also voiced displeasure with a system that doesn’t always result in a candidate winning with majority support, instead awarding a nomination or even a seat to someone with only a plurality of support.
“With Ranked Choice voting, it frees you from having to worry about who might [be most able to] win this election,” Kirby adds. “And allows you to just vote your preferences and express your true preferences of who you really would like, first and foremost, to win.”
“We have a very polarized society right now — Republican versus Democrat — and it’s a very toxic situation. A lot of people don’t feel represented because if their candidate didn’t win the primary in one of the major parties, then they either have to hold their nose and vote for the lesser evil, which people don’t like doing because it’s not really expressing their true preferences, or they just sit out and give up on democracy, which is what a lot of people have done.”
“I think if you get more of these small-time candidates who can run on third-party platforms and tickets, that you can get people who have been disengaged and actually have someone that they believe represents them,” says fellow Green Party Co-chair Dustin Fiore.
Green Party leaders also believe RCV would offer their candidates a place in the conversation.
“One of the big downsides of a two-party dominant system is that there are ideas that, um, that they may not even be that unpopular,” says Paglino, using the example of single-payer healthcare and noting that it isn’t popular in the two major parties at this time even while it does have support among voters. “The two-party system, when you only have two people up on the stage, there’s a lot of important issues that get left out.”
“A big problem with how the discourse is as of now, with the way that things are set up, the major parties are able to just stop the debate from even happening,” adds Fiore. “So they don’t even have to win their debate in the marketplace of free ideas. They just shut the debate down completely and use their superior media access and financial advantage to overwhelm the airwaves and all other channels. And then they don’t even have to debate with us on the policy.”
While the Green Party and the Libertarian Party might often find themselves on different sides of many political issues, they are in agreement here. Ranked Choice Voting, they say, benefits their voters, particularly because it would force candidates to appeal to a broader span of voters to ensure a majority vote.
“I do think those candidates will have a broader appeal and so it should bring out better candidates,” says Dustin Tibbetts of the Connecticut Libertarian Party. “The discourse gets broader. Candidates have to be able to appeal to a broader voter base and hopefully, that means these are better candidates.”
Tibbetts, however, notes that Ranked Choice Voting isn’t a cure-all for the state’s election issues. A major concern for smaller candidates are Connecticut’s restrictive ballot access laws, which make it difficult for new blood to enter the race at all, and restrictive access to state funding to help mount those campaigns.
“Even if you feel like it’s a foregone conclusion, at least having someone there that could run against them, knock on doors, and push them is better than an unopposed race where nobody has a choice, says Tibbets. “These are the things that really need to get fixed. I think Ranked Choice Voting can possibly help with that, but again, it’s just one of the many reforms”
While most of the state’s larger third parties support the implementation of Ranked Choice Voting, it isn’t universal.
The Working Families Party (WFP), which falls on the more progressive side of policy issues, has come down against RCV, in part because they believe it hinders coalition building between major and minor parties.
“I think we all agree that we need more coalition in government and fewer individual candidates who are just putting their name on the ballot because that’s the statement they want to make,” says Lindsay Farrell, Senior Political Strategist for WFP National and former State Director for the Connecticut party.
In most larger elections, Working Families tends to cross-nominate popular candidates already on the ballot for the Democrats. Farrell says this gives them more power in state government, more ability to bring a voice to their issues, and gives them more choice during campaign season.
“Even if we’re not a hundred percent aligned with them, we would rather support somebody who has a real shot at winning and use that support to inject our values and the issues we care about into the election that’s happening,” argues Farrell. “We don’t get a lot by just putting somebody on the ballot to make a statement and that person might get some small percentage of the vote and then all those votes would secondarily go to somebody who may or may not win.”
That said, Working Families isn’t opposed to RCV in all scenarios. In fact, they support it for primaries where candidates are highly likely to win nominations with only a small percentage of voter support.
“Right now, the system that we have in a crowded primary, somebody could win with 32% of the vote or something in that ballpark while being really, really disliked by like the other 70%,” says Farrell. “In a ranked-choice primary, whoever comes out of that primary really does have a majority of some level of support going into the general election, and that’s better for the party.”
Ranked Choice Voting also poses some logistical concerns, some of which are easier to address than others.
For one, the state’s current vote tabulators lack the ability to handle a ranked choice ballot, which requires recalculation at each stage. The Secretary of the State is working on that. During the first week of October, her office successfully petitioned the State Bond Commission for $25 million in funding to buy new tabulators. These new tabulators will be able to handle RCV elections once installed but likely won’t be functional until after next year’s presidential election.
RCV elections could also cause some confusion for voters. The public is used to elections that are called with confidence hours after polls close because, in a winner-take-all all election, those votes only need to be counted once. In an election where ballots need to be recalculated at different stages, it would likely take a little longer to announce a final result, perhaps days longer. In Alaska, which has state-wide ranked choice elections, a recent election wasn’t officially called until 15 days after votes were cast. In reality, all elections take about that long for official results to be tabulated and certified. In Connecticut, there is a law that requires counties to certify their individual results to state election officials by a week after election day. But we have become accustomed to the way results are covered on television news, another field that would have to adjust the way things are done under a new voting system.
Ranked Choice Voting is also not a high priority right now, at least in the General Assembly. A proposed bill that would have brought it to Connecticut died in committee during this year’s legislative session. At the time, Rep. Matt Blumenthal (D-Stamford) said that the Government Administration and Election Committee lacked time to properly explore the subject and were instead focused on things like Early Voting.
“We ultimately just decided that we didn’t have the bandwidth or the support we needed this session to get a [ranked choice] bill done,” Blumenthal told CT News Junkie.
CII reached out to representatives of both the state’s Democrat and Republican parties to learn their stances on Ranked Choice Voting but did not hear back by press time.