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JIM MCKENZIE: A timely reform

Ranked-choice voting better by Jim McKenzie Special to the Democrat-Gazette | August 16, 2019 at 1:54 a.m.

Talk of change is in the air in Arkansas' capital city. Little Rock elected a reform-minded new mayor who has questioned the usefulness of at-large directors, suggesting 10 wards instead, and who has even suggested leaving the city manager form of government adopted in 1957 and returning to mayor-council government.

For its part, the city Board of Directors has appointed an 11-member Little Rock Governance Structure Study Group to study the issues. They hope to have their recommendations to the board in September. They've held hearings around town and gotten a fair amount of feedback from the public.

But regardless of the form of local government ultimately settled on, there is one timely reform that will work well with any of them. It's called Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), also known as Instant Runoff Voting.

Ranked Choice Voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. For a single office, like for a mayor or city director, RCV helps elect a candidate more reflective of a majority of voters in a single election, even when several viable candidates are in the race. It does this by counting the votes in rounds.

Voters get to rank candidates in order of choice. If there are four candidates in a race, a voter would rank them first, second, third and fourth. If a candidate receives more than half of the first choices, they win, just like any other election. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and voters who picked that candidate as "No. 1" will have their votes count for their next choice. This process continues until a candidate wins with more than half of the votes. A spiffy little video at explains the operation more clearly.

Based on extensive research, RCV has some important benefits.

First, RCV promotes majority support. Call me old-fashioned, but it seems to me that an elected official has more credibility to govern if they have been elected by a majority than if 60-70 percent of the electorate voted for someone else.

Second, RCV discourages negative campaigning. Under RCV, every candidate wants to be everyone's second choice if they can't be their first choice. So it promotes campaigning to the center and trying to find common ground with one's opponents in order to appeal to their supporters as much as possible.

Third, RCV saves money by eliminating the need for runoff elections. Having had to run in one, it is with some authority that I say that candidates hate runoff elections. Turnout for runoff elections is only a fraction of the general election, and that low turnout doesn't necessarily reflect the majority will of our community.

Finally, RCV promotes reflective representation. Research shows that with RCV, women and minorities have a better chance of getting elected in numbers that reflect their shares of the population. For a city with the racial makeup of Little Rock, this is an important consideration.

This sounds pretty complicated and kind of radical, you say? Does anyone actually use this method of voting, you ask?

Well, we do. Arkansas, along with five other states, uses ranked-choice voting for military and overseas absentee voters for state and local elections, and has since 2006. In 2018, the state of Maine used it for all elections. Ten other states have used or enacted it for local elections where it has been used by cities large and small, ranging from San Francisco and Minneapolis to Santa Fe and Telluride, Colo. Memphis voters have authorized it twice and are scheduled to use it in 2019 pending legal challenge. Over 20 cities--and growing--have used or authorized RCV so far.

So it's been tried, tested and evaluated for effectiveness. It's not such a radical idea since we use it already in Arkansas for local elections, just for a select subset of voters.

Might it be time for the capital city to lead the way in adopting this reform more broadly?


Jim McKenzie served briefly on the Pulaski County Quorum Court and recently retired after serving as the executive director of Metroplan for 28 years. He is currently doing public policy consulting and visiting grandkids.

Editorial on 08/16/2019

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