Bringing a Better Ballot to Benton County

Initiative effort by both office holders and activists

Countywide push to let Benton Co. voters rank the candidates instead of being limited to just one

Local activists and elected officials have combined in Benton County to promote an initiative to bring ranked-choice voting (RCV) to county elections, which would let county voters rank candidates 1, 2, 3, and so on, instead of being forced to cast a single vote for just one candidate. With RCV, voters can vote for their favorite candidate without concerns about “spoilers” and wasted votes. The text of the Benton County measure:

Better Ballot Benton County Charter Amendment

Initiative to Elect Benton County Elected Officers by Ranked Choice Voting
The People of Benton County adopt the following Amendment to the Benton County Charter:

A new Section shall be added to Chapter VII Elections, to read as follows:
Section 25. Method of Election.

(1) Elected officers of the County shall be elected in the general election, and at any special election, by a process of ranked choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting or the alternative vote.

(a) The County Commissioners shall, by ordinance, establish rules necessary for the orderly administration of the election as soon as practicable but not later than one hundred twenty days prior to the first election using ranked choice voting.

(b) Within sixty days of the passage of the initiative establishing this Section 25 of the Charter, the County shall request not more than $200,000 in funding from the State and, if necessary, other sources, to pay for the initial implementation of ranked choice voting, which shall include an initial education campaign for County voters. The County Clerk shall implement ranked choice voting at the first general election held twelve months or more past the date funding is secured, and at each general and special election of elected officers thereafter.

The “Better Ballot Benton” campaign website explains the motivation for using RCV, which is expressly mentioned in the Oregon Constitution, in a section added in the height of the Progressive Reform era, when the “Oregon System” of initiatives and referendums was pioneered.

In all elections authorized by this constitution until otherwise provided by law, the person or persons receiving the highest number of votes shall be declared elected, but provision may be made by law for elections by equal proportional representation of all the voters for every office which is filled by the election of two or more persons whose official duties, rights and powers are equal and concurrent.

Every qualified elector resident in his precinct and registered as may be required by law, may vote for one person under the title for each office. Provision may be made by law for the voter’s direct or indirect expression of his first, second or additional choices among the candidates for any office. For an office which is filled by the election of one person it may be required by law that the person elected shall be the final choice of a majority of the electors voting for candidates for that office. These principles may be applied by law to nominations by political parties and organizations.

Arguments in favor from the “Better Ballot Benton” website:

Bring Ranked Choice Voting to Benton County 

A local initiative to implement Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) in Benton County will be on the ballot during the November 2016 Election. The initiative will allow voters to rank candidates for countywide offices (County Commissioner and Sheriff) in order of their preference during general elections. 

With ranked choice voting, voters rank as many candidates as they want in order of preference. The process of ranking helps to elect candidates that better reflect the support of a majority of voters.  In response, candidates work hard to attract a strong core of first-choice support while also reaching out beyond their normal supporters to earn other voters’ second and even third choice. The result is a more fair and functional democracy that gives voters more choices, decreases negative campaigning, and minimizes the need for strategic voting.  It is a simple change that can have a big impact in Benton County.

HOW RCV WORKS:

Ranked choice voting (RCV) is a voting method that allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. Those rankings are then used to elect candidates that better reflect the support of a majority of voters. RCV give voters more choices, decreases negative campaigning, lessens the impact of money in politics, and minimizes the need for strategic voting.

RCV is straightforward for voters: rank candidates in order of choice. Voters can rank as many candidates as they want, without fear that ranking others will hurt the chances of their favorite candidate. Exit polls and ballot analyses from ranked choice voting elections have indicated that voters like having more choice and overwhelmingly understood how to rank candidates.

For a single office, like County Commissioner, RCV helps to elect a candidate more reflective of a majority of voters when several viable candidates are in the race. It does this by counting the votes in rounds:

First, every vote counts for its first choice. If a candidate has more than half of the vote based on first-choices, that candidate wins. If no candidate has more than half of those votes, then the candidate with the fewest first choices is eliminated. The voters who selected the defeated candidate as a first choice will then have their votes added to the totals of their next choice. This process continues until a candidate has more than half of the active votes or only two candidates remain. The candidate with a majority among the active candidates is declared the winner.​

RANKED CHOICE VOTING  The Benefits
* GIVES VOTERS MORE CHOICE
* DISCOURAGES NEGATIVE CAMPAIGNING
* PROMOTES MAJORITY SUPPORT
* LESSENS IMPACT OF MONEY IN POLITICS
* PROMOTES BETTER REPRESENTATION
 * MINIMIZES STRATEGIC VOTING
* ENCOURAGES CANDIDATES TO TALK WITH MORE VOTERS

Democracy is strongest when more voices are heard. Too often, to avoid “vote splitting” in which candidates can and do win with very little support (see “Promotes Majority Support” below), efforts are taken to limit the number of candidates who compete. This limits voters’ choices. In some places, that means a low turnout primary election eliminates most of the candidates; in others it means restrictive ballot access laws keep out challengers; and in others it means that candidates are shamed as spoilers into staying out the race. Ranked choice voting allows more than two candidates to compete without fear of splitting the vote.​

In non-ranked choice voting elections, candidates benefit from “mud-slinging” by attacking an opponent’s character instead of sharing their positive vision with voters. With ranked choice voting, candidates do best when they reach out positively to as many voters as possible, including those supporting their opponents.  When trying to earn voters’ “second choice” or “third choice” vote, the last thing you want to do is attack their “first choice” candidate.  A comprehensive Rutgers University poll of voters in 7 cities with ranked choice voting found that voters report friendlier campaigns and that RCV had majority support in all of the cities using it.

Voters should be able to vote for candidates they most support, not just against candidates they most oppose.  Yet in elections without ranked choice voting, voters may feel that they need to vote for the “lesser of two evils” because their favorite candidate is less likely to win. With ranked choice voting, you can honestly rank candidates in order of choice without having to worry about how others will vote and who is more or less likely to win.

In current elections, candidates focus on reaching out to their likely base of voters to earn their vote.  There is no need for candidates to reach out beyond their base of supporters because voters can only vote for their top candidate.  When voters can rank their candidates in order of preference, it requires candidates to earn as many “second choice” and “third choice” votes as possible.  As such, candidates must communicate and reach out beyond their traditional base to earn voters’ “second choice” and “third choice.”  

Too often, candidates win by barraging opponents with a slew of expensive, negative ads, rather than building a positive, grassroots campaign for support. Candidates who have won in ranked choice voting elections have been successful because they built grassroots outreach networks. These more positive and inclusive campaign tactics cost less than polarizing negative radio and television ads, helping to explain why candidates seem able to win ranked choice voting elections even when outspent.

Too often, candidates can and do win election to offices like Mayor, Governor, and even President, despite being opposed by most voters. With ranked choice voting, if no candidate has more than half the vote in first-choices, candidates finishing last are eliminated round-by-round in an instant runoff until two candidates are left. The winning candidate will be the one with majority support when matched against the other. 

Ranked choice voting can promote the representation of historically under-represented groups like racial and ethnic minorities and women. A report co-authored by FairVote and the New America Foundation found that racial minority populations prefer ranked choice voting and find it easy to use, and that ranked choice voting increased turnout by 2.7 times in San Francisco.​

What’s wrong with the current voting system?  

The current system was designed for an era with a strong two-party system.  This system doesn’t fit the current political reality in which many voters say they would consider voting for an independent or a third-party candidate.  Split elections like these create “spoiler” dynamics and compel voters to vote tactically, not sincerely, as they fear that by voting for their preferred candidate they’ll either “waste” their vote or unwittingly help elect their least preferred candidate.
 
The current system also offers little incentive for candidates to appeal to a broad majority of voters during the campaign, or for winners to do so once in office.  Further, the current system fuels rancor by rewarding negative campaigning: Candidates win by maligning the other candidates. They gain traction by driving up opponents’ negatives, persuading voters to vote against the opponent instead of for the candidate.  Negative, divisive campaigns lead to polarizing debates on narrowly focused agendas – and pave the path for gridlocked governance.
 
Finally, in current elections there is no requirement that candidates secure a majority of votes. The candidate with the most votes wins. This is not a problem when only two candidates compete on the ballot, but that’s often not the case. As more than a decade of contests have demonstrated, our “plurality-take-all” voting system is no longer reliably producing majority winners in many elections.
 
Where else is RCV used?

RCV has been adopted for use in local elections in American cities across the country, including San Francisco; Minneapolis and St. Paul; Portland, Maine; Takoma Park, Maryland; Hendersonville, North Carolina; Cambridge, Massachusetts and Telluride, Colorado.  Louisiana, Arkansas and South Carolina also currently use RCV for overseas and military voters.
 
Strong voter education has resulted in high approval ratings in jurisdictions where it’s in use. RCV is pending implementation in several other U.S. cities and being considered for use in numerous other jurisdictions as well. RCV also has a long, successful history in democracies around the world including Australia, Ireland, Northern Ireland, New Zealand, and Scotland. It is recommended by Robert’s Rules of Order and is used by several organizations and political parties for their endorsing conventions. A majority of our top-rated universities use RCV for student elections and it’s also used to elect the Academy Awards’ Best Picture.
 
Do voters like RCV?

Yes, voters overwhelmingly favor RCV over the old system. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, two-thirds of polled voters want to continue to use RCV for their local elections – and most of them would like to see it used at the state level, too. Watch the video on the home page to see a video of voters’ experience using RCV in the 2013 Minneapolis election.
 
Will RCV be used in each party’s primary elections?

No.  RCV will only be used in the general election after each party has chosen their nominee for the general election.  
 
How much will it cost Benton County to implement RCV? 

The cost to Benton County to implement RCV will be minimal due to the language of the initiative.  All significant costs of implementation will be paid by the State of Oregon or an outside party such as a non-profit organization or foundation. 
 
Will new equipment be needed to conduct RCV elections?

No.  Benton County recently replaced its voting equipment with new ES&S machines that are equipped with advanced RCV-capable technology. This means that – at no additional expense to the county - they can read a ranked ballot, create a data file of rankings and export the data file for independent tabulation of races that require two or more rounds of counting. Other jurisdictions are currently using these machines and an inexpensive spreadsheet-assisted system to tabulate RCV results that Benton County can adopt.
 
Won’t an RCV ballot be confusing to voters and cause more ballot errors?

Election data show that spoiled ballot rates under RCV are below 1 percent, and exit polls surveying first-time RCV voters show that the vast majority of voters understand how to use RCV. Good ballot design, user-friendly instructions, and strong voter education are the ingredients of a successful election using any voting method.
 
Any change in voting method requires adequate voter education, and we have model voter education programs for cities adopting RCV. The election officials are charged with creating a ballot format that is clear and helps the voter to cast an effective vote.
 
Do RCV ballots have a lot of errors?

No, RCV elections do not have significantly more errors than traditional elections. In the 2013 Minneapolis mayoral election, less than half of one percent of all ballots cast in the mayoral race had errors, such as an over-vote or skipped ranking. Ninety percent of these were correctable errors, resulting in a 99.94 percent valid ballot rate.
 
Does RCV favor one party over another?

No, RCV doesn’t favor any political party.  RCV is all about increasing the range of viable choices for voters by eliminating the fear of spoiler candidates, regardless of party affiliation. Furthermore, RCV has been endorsed by political leaders from all parties.
 
How does Ranked Choice Voting impact major and minor parties?

RCV frees major party candidates from the fear that an independent or third-party candidate would spoil their election, allowing them to campaign on their issues and to work constructively with minor parties on the issues they agree on. RCV helps the two major parties by enabling them to get votes back from third-party voters in the form of second choices. RCV also helps third parties by enabling them to receive an accurate tally of support and to campaign on a level playing field with major parties without the fear of being cast as “spoilers” or “nonviable.”  
 
Does RCV give some voters more votes than others? Does it violate the “one person, one vote” principle?

No. Every voter gets an equal vote. In every round of counting, every ballot counts as one vote for the highest-ranked candidate still in the running. If your candidate is still viable, your vote will count for your favorite candidate in the runoff round. If your candidate has been eliminated, you need to settle for one of the remaining candidates – just as in a traditional runoff election. Your vote automatically counts for whichever continuing candidate you prefer.
 
RCV works like a runoff election but in a single election: In a traditional primary you vote for your first choice. If that candidate survives the primary you can vote for your first choice again in the general election. If your candidate doesn’t survive the primary, you can vote for one of the top two candidates in the general election as a second choice. With RCV, you simply indicate your preferences on a single ballot.
 
If candidates with the fewest votes are dropped first, does that mean the supporters of the weakest candidates get extra clout?

No. The supporters of the most popular candidates determine which candidates advance and which candidates are eliminated. Once the weakest candidates are eliminated, every voter has a single equal vote that can count for the final contenders, meaning everyone has an equal voice in deciding the election.
 
How do I mark a ranked ballot? 

You simply fill in the 1st choice oval next to your favorite candidate, the 2nd choice oval next to your 2nd favorite, and so on. You can rank as many or as few candidates as you like, but the more candidates you rank, the greater the chance that your vote will help to elect someone you like and prevent the election of a candidate you dislike. 
 
Does voting equipment exist to count ranked ballots? 

Yes. RCV-capable voting machines are currently being used each election cycle across the country. 
 
Can I rank only one candidate?

You are free to vote for only one candidate. However, if that candidate is less popular than the other candidates and is eliminated, you will not have a backup candidate to count in the next round. This choice would be analogous to voting in a primary but not in the general election if your favorite candidate doesn’t make it through the first election. That’s why it is in your best interest to rank as many candidates as you have a favorable opinion about, rather than “bullet” voting for just your favorite candidate.  Indicating 2nd and 3rd choices will not harm your 1st choice, as subsequent choices are only considered if your 1st choice is eliminated. 
 
What happens if I vote for the same candidate twice?

Marking the same candidate twice doesn’t help that candidate. Your ballot will count for your 1st choice as long as that candidate remains in the race. When and if that candidate is eliminated, your vote will count for your 2nd choice.  If your 2nd choice is eliminated or already has been eliminated, your ballot will count for your 3rd choice, etc.
 
Can I give the same ranking to several candidates if I like them equally well?

No. If you mark an oval for more than one candidate in the 1st choice column or subsequent columns, your ballot will be invalid when that ranking is reached.