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Scoppe: Ranked-choice voting just keeps growing. It's time for SC to expand its use here.

Election 2022 Alaska Explainer

Brochures at the Alaska Division of Elections office explain how the state's new ranked-choice voting system works. The system, which is a lot easier to do than to explain, was first used in the state's special congressional election this summer and now will determine the winner of the U.S. Senate and House races that were on the Nov. 8 election. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen, File)

I usually write about instant-runoff voting during the primary season, because the idea of letting voters rank their choices, thereby avoiding the return trip to the polls two weeks later to vote in a runoff, has traditionally been used in primary elections.

But Election 2022 brought some exciting advances for this rapidly emerging voting method that as recently as six years ago was used by just 10 jurisdictions in the entire country.

This month, voters approved a ballot measure to make Nevada the third state in the nation to allow instant-runoff voting, also known as ranked-choice. Like Alaska, Nevada will go beyond that simple change and adopt a whole new system that combines ranked-choice voting with the elimination of the traditional partisan primaries. (More on that in a moment.)

Scoppe Mug Shot (copy)

Cindi Ross Scoppe

Meantime, according to the advocacy group FairVote, another six local governments adopted instant-runoff voting: Fort Collins, Colorado; Evanston, Illinois; Portland, Maine; Ojai, California; and Portland and Multnomah County, Oregon. It was leading in a Seattle referendum that was still being counted at week's end.

That means ranked-choice voting has now been approved for 63 jurisdictions, including Nevada, Alaska and Maine and covering nearly 20 million people, making it “the fastest-growing, nonpartisan voting reform in the country,” according to FairVote President Rob Richie.

Among those 63 jurisdictions, you might recall, is South Carolina, which along with five other Southern states stretching westward to Arkansas and Louisiana provides instant-runoff absentee ballots in the primaries for military and overseas voters.

Critics have always complained that the system is too complicated, but it’s a lot more complicated to explain than to actually do: If there are more than two candidates on the ballot, you vote for your top choice, and then you indicate your second choice, and so on as far down as you want to go. If one candidate wins 50% plus one, the election is over. If not, the votes for the last-place candidate are removed, and those voters’ second-choice votes are allocated to the remaining candidates. If that gives one candidate a majority, the election is over then. If not, the process repeats, for as many rounds as it takes.

The results in South Carolina’s primaries in the spring demonstrate one reason it’s a smart idea: Statewide, voting in this year’s primary runoffs dropped off about 60% from the primaries, but among people casting military and overseas ballots, the drop-off rate was only a third. State Election Commission spokesman John David Catalano tells me that while military and overseas voters can request a separate runoff ballot, nearly all runoff votes come from instant-runoff ballots.

In addition to increasing runoff participation and making life so much easier for voters, ranked-choice voting also saves money, because we don’t have to pay for a second election day two weeks after the first one.

Those are reasons aplenty to make the simple change from traditional runoffs to instant runoffs, but there also are potentially larger advantages: Since people get to pick their second choice (and third and subsequent, depending on how many candidates are on the ballot), ranked-choice encourages candidates to appeal to a broader slice of the electorate. Another way of looking at that is that it favors candidates who do appeal to a broader slice of the electorate.

Which brings us to the critics. They still say it’s too complicated, and that it takes too long to calculate the winners — which is particularly ironic this year, since it's been more than a week since Election Day and we still don't have results from the ranked-choice referendum in Seattle, which was conducted under a standard, non-ranked system.

But now critics on the far right have taken to complaining that it’s designed to hurt candidates aligned with former President Donald Trump. They point as evidence to Alaska, which combines ranked choice with the system most S.C. municipalities use: There are no primaries, but all the candidates’ names are on the ballot.

The top four candidates in Alaska’s elections advance to the runoff — which is what the Nov. 8 election actually was — and if no one receives a majority, officials start tabulating the second-place choices of the last-place finisher. We’re still waiting for the tabulation, because Alaska law delays when absentee ballots can be counted and gives officials three weeks after the election to complete the process. But Sarah Palin and fellow Trump acolyte Kelly Tshibaka are expected to lose their bids for U.S. House and U.S. Senate to Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola and mainstream Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski with the help of second-place votes from mainstream Republicans and Democrats, respectively. Hence the charges of rigged elections and a system designed to undermine the voters’ will, at least as expressed by Trump voters.

The system clearly was not designed to hurt Trump-backed candidates — it’s been around for more than a century — but I have no doubt that some people are supporting it for that reason. And if so, so what? I would guess that after the Nov. 8 results, there are a lot more Republicans who would be happy to say goodbye to the former president and his mini-mes.

The main point of instant runoff, which predates and will endure long past the former president's presence, is to let us get to a majority without having to run a second election. And when it’s used for the general election, it ensures that the winner receives a majority — which is not required now in most general elections including, most recently, the Charleston County School District, where a third of the votes was in many cases plenty.

It’s great that members of the military and South Carolinians living overseas are able to use this system in the primaries. The rest of us should be able to use it as well. It would be even better if we could do away with primaries as we know them and use it in the general election too.

Editorial: A better way to get to 50% plus one
Editorial: Give SC cities the option of ranked-choice voting
Commentary: Ranked-choice voting can help fix SC's broken political system
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Cindi Ross Scoppe is an editorial writer for The Post and Courier. Contact her at cscoppe@postandcourier.com or follow her on Facebook or Twitter  @cindiscoppe.

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