Benton County moves into uncharted waters this election cycle with its first use of ranked choice voting.
County voters passed Measure 2-100 installing the system by a 54.18% to 44.82 margin in 2016. The process, used statewide in Maine and in many foreign countries, only will be used for the two Board of Commissioners races on the Nov. 3 ballot.
Here is a quick look at how how it works (see Page A4 for more):
• There are three candidates for both commissioners’ races. Voters will be asked to rank them in order.
• If one candidate gets 50% plus 1 of the No. 1 votes. They win. Simple.
• If no one gets that majority it gets more complicated. The numbers get crunched again with the possibility that the leader in No. 1 votes gets beat out by another candidate because that candidate with the lead in No. 1 votes received a ton of No. 3 votes from other voters.
Think of it like a swim meet. The team that wins the most races doesn’t always come out on top. The team that comes in with the most seconds and thirds can pull past them.
Ranked choice backers offered an example of the process at a Thursday media briefing. They put forward a mock three-candidate election in which one candidate received 40% of the first-place votes, with the other candidates at 35% and 25%, respectively. The candidate with 35% of the vote ranked significantly higher in second-place votes and came out on top once ranked choice principles were deployed.
Aid to other parties
“The system we use now,” said state Rep Dan Rayfield of Corvallis, “rewards candidates who win just a plurality of the vote. You elect people with less than 50% of the vote. This happens a lot in primaries.”
Rayfield and ranked choice backers say that the current system works against third- and fourth-party candidates because voters often have to choose between voting for the candidate they really like or picking one of the major candidates as the “lesser of two evils.”
Rayfield says that “the true will of the voters is not reflected in the outcome of the election.”
“Ranked choice gives voters more power to express their preferences,” said attorney Blair Bobier, the co-petitioner with Rayfield on the Measure 2-100 campaign.
Let’s say a fictional four-candidate race included a Democrat, a Republican, a Libertarian and a Green. Libertarians tend to siphon votes away from the Republican, while Green votes hurt the Democrat. But under ranked choice a Green voter could still pick their candidate No. 1.
“One of the biggest benefits of RCV is that it eliminates the ‘spoiler’ effect of third party participation in elections,” said Mike Beilstein, the Green candidate in one of the county commissioners’ races. “It ensures that the election winner always has majority support, although the winner might be the second choice of some voters.”
Democrat Xan Augerot, the incumbent for the Position 2 seat being sought by Beilstein and Republican Tom Cordier, agrees.
“RCV makes it easier for small-party or lesser-known candidates to take part in the process,” she said. “It guarantees that the elected candidate represents a majority of the voters. It also makes it more likely for campaigns to be positive, since for voters we will no longer be an either/or choice. I suspect that, this year, races for county commissioner may be a little tighter numerically.
“In a three-way race where the electorate is truly split, say with no candidate getting more than 30% of the vote on the first round, it would guarantee that the winner was highly ranked by a majority of the voters. It allows candidates to build coalitions for top ranking, and in other locales has made it easier for lesser-known candidates and people of color to achieve name recognition, support and election.”
Political observers think such as system also might improve the tone of campaigns.
“Advocates will tell you that this process leads to the balancing of political agendas, meaning the candidates will campaign toward a broader electoral base,” said James Morales, the Benton County clerk who is charged with implementing the new system. “They believe ranked choice voting will help to clean up campaign messaging and invite a larger swath of potential candidates to ‘throw their hat in the ring’ (file for office), thus, improving the candidate pool from which the voters have to choose.
“Candidates with a narrower base of support and focused messaging, perhaps to the far-left or far-right on the political spectrum, would be at a loss in this format.”
Bobier and Mike Alfoni, who teamed up with Rayfield to get ranked choice on the ballot and then approved in Benton County, offered some recent examples of the concept at their Thursday Zoom briefing.
• In this May’s Democratic primary for secretary of state Shemia Fagan won with 36.23% of the vote, edging Mark Hass (35.26%) by 4,450 votes out of more than 578,000 cast. And Jamie McLeod- Skinner finished third with 27.55%. Under ranked choice it would have taken just a moderate edge in No. 2 votes for Hass to pass Fagan.
• In the May Republican primary to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Greg Walden in District 5, four candidates received 18% of the vote or more, with Cliff Bentz triumphing with about 37%. Ranked choice could have made it a different outcome for Knute Buehler and Jason Atkinson, who finished second and third behind Bentz, with about 26% and 23%, respectively.
History offers some other examples, Rayfield noted, including the 2000 presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore. In the crucial state of Florida polls showed that 60% of voters who pulled the tab for Green candidate Ralph Nader would have supported Gore in a two-person race. And history might have changed.
Beilstein brought up the 1992 presidential race in which Democrat Bill Clinton received 43%, Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush 38% and independent Ross Perot 19%. To crunch the numbers another way 57% of voters rejected Clinton and 62% of them said no to Bush. Could have been real interesting with RCV.
“Elimination of the ‘spoiler’ effect allows safer participation of more diverse voices in political campaigns,” said Beilstein, a six-term Corvallis councilor who also has challenged long-time Democratic incumbent Peter DeFazio in U.S. House District 4.
Beilstein, who said his top three issues for the commissioners’ race are climate change, climate change and climate change, argued that ranked choice might inject a broader range of issues into the overall campaign.
“I hope a strong showing for the Green candidate will demonstrate a desire among voters for social justice and prioritization of ecological concerns that the Pacific Green Party represents, even if that candidate does not win the election,” he said.
How we got here
Rayfield first began working on the ranked choice idea in the early 2000s while taking a college class on the economics of politics.
“We studied the electoral system and it dawned on me that we had to find a better way,” said Rayfield, who is seeking his fourth term in House District 16 in a two-person race against Republican Jason Hughes.
But it wasn’t until after the 2015 legislative session that Rayfield began working on the issue in earnest.
“We thought Benton County was a good place to start,” he said of the approach he and Bobier took.
“We put it on the ballot here because we live here,” Bobier said.
They drafted the language, worked on the ballot title and gathered signatures, with Rayfield’s father chipping in. They hired Alfoni to be the campaign manager and developed a communications plan.
And then they triumphed on election night. The vote was fairly close even though there was no organized opposition.
“It was a strange moment for us and the Democrats,” Rayfield said. “Trump was elected, but ranked choice voting passed.”
Speaking of Trump, he and Hillary Clinton combined for 94.27% of the vote in 2016 but neither got to the magic 50% number. Ranked choice might not have resulted in a different outcome, but it almost certainly would have made things interesting.
Rayfield, Bobier and their allies are shooting for a statewide initiative next. Rayfield said RCV could be particularly useful in nonpartisan races such as judgeships and labor commissioner because the “instant runoff” aspect would save money given that the race would be resolved on primary night with no need for a second vote.
“We’re working on a couple of bills to submit for the 2021 session,” Rayfield said. “We want to start the conversation and see how far we get. I enjoy this stuff, obviously.”