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Why Oregon should move to Ranked-Choice Voting

As I’ve said from day one of this campaign, I want it to be about issues – not fundraising. Ideas, not slogans.

As the Chief Elections Officer, the Secretary of State has a responsibility to make elections work better – to give equal voices to people who are often drowned out.

Ranked-choice voting does this.

I have researched the data and spent time talking to people from New York, to San Francisco, and right here, in Benton County, Oregon. So, here is my position on why Oregon should move to a fairer elections system known as ranked-choice voting.

Ranked-Choice Voting

Oregon is full of options. It has hiking, kayaking, craft breweries, or a day at the beach. And Oregonians are good at choosing their priorities. Maybe our first choice is to go to the beach, but then it starts to rain. We can throw on our boots and jump in puddles in the mountains. But when it comes to choosing political candidates, we get our first choice, or we get nothing – no matter how much we like other candidates on the same ballot.

Ranked-choice voting is the solution to that dilemma and provides a host of side benefits as well, including more positive election campaigns.

Ranked-choice voting allows voters to elect candidates who represent the views of the electorate more closely. It also eliminates the potential for a "spoiler" candidate to decide elections, a concern often aimed at third-party candidates in U.S. presidential elections. Think Ralph Nader in 2000.

How it Works

With ranked-choice voting, voters rank candidates in order of preference on their ballots. If one candidate gets a majority of first-choice votes, that candidate wins the election. However, if no candidate secures a majority of first-choice votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and the second-choice votes of voters who preferred the eliminated candidate are allocated to those who remain in the race. This process continues until one candidate has majority support.

An exciting aspect of ranked-choice voting is that it reduces the incentives for negative campaigning. In traditional elections, candidates benefit from “mud-slinging” by attacking an opponent’s character instead of sharing their positive vision. With ranked-choice voting, candidates do best when they engage with as many voters as possible, including those supporting their opponents. Where cities use ranked-choice voting, negative advertising has all but disappeared.

In February 2019, a Portland City Club research report recommended ranked-choice voting as preferable to the current system. “Portland should adopt some alternative voting system such as ranked-choice, preferential, or cumulative voting to better achieve equity goals,” the report stated.

Ranked-Choice Voting on the Rise

Ranked-choice voting is not a new, untested idea. It was invented around 1870 and has since been adopted by democracies across the world. Australia has used ranked-choice voting in its national elections since 1919. Ranked-choice voting is now in use or approved in 21 cities in the U.S., including San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Cambridge. Voters in New York City recently approved ranked-choice voting, the largest U.S. city to do so. The state of Maine also uses it for federal elections. And in Oregon, voters in Benton County approved a ranked-choice ballot measure in 2016. It will begin using the system in its elections this year.

My Proposal

Oregon was a pioneer with Vote by Mail, a convenient, common-sense method of voting that has become wildly popular among Oregonians. Ranked-choice voting could be an election reform with the same magnitude and influence as Vote by Mail.

What are we trying to accomplish with ranked-choice voting?

As Secretary of State, I would propose taking this idea out for a test drive, similar to Oregon’s “experiment” Vote by Mail, which was used in various local elections beginning in the 1980s. It did not become a permanent fixture for all Oregon elections until 2000.

First, I propose creating an office in the Elections Division dedicated to supporting counties enacting ranked-choice. No new legislation is required for Oregon counties to adopt ranked-choice voting in their local elections if they choose, but the Secretary of State’s office can help make the transition more seamless. Second, as Secretary of State, I would carefully monitor and evaluate Oregon counties’ experience with the ranked-choice system. Lastly, because the voters’ voice is paramount, I would ask the legislature to refer to voters a proposal to adopt a statewide system.

This is not a partisan idea. I think we can all get behind an elections system that promotes positive, inclusive and fair elections. Ranked-choice voting empowers voters to make thoughtful decisions that fully reflect their interests and priorities.

The more we can empower voters, the stronger we can make our democracy.

UPDATE: STAR Voting

Since I announced my support for ranked-choice voting back in November, a number of advocates for STAR voting have reached out to me. STAR stands for “Score Then Automatic Runoff.” It allows voters to give a score from 0-5 to all candidates on a ballot, giving higher scores to more preferred candidates. To score the election you simply add up all the scores voters have given the candidates. The candidates with the two highest scores are then put into an automatic runoff, with the candidate who was given a higher preference winning the election.

Ranked-choice is not the only way to improve our voting system. STAR voting also gives voters more choice on election day. Both methods are better than the current winner-take-all system.

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