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You may have seen the clipboard-wielders at your local farmers market or midweek concert series or grocery store parking lot this summer. They wanted to speak with you about something called ranked choice voting.
But while they were gathering petition signatures, they were not trying to qualify an initiative or candidate for the ballot — the usual goal for this kind of activity (more on that later). They’re volunteers with Ranked Choice Voting Montana, and they’re looking to raise awareness and support for a major shift in state election procedures they say would create a more balanced, representative and responsive government.
“Our mission is to get out there and talk about ranked choice voting and educate people about it, how it works, how it can improve our elections and help voters,” Eric Buhler, the nonprofit organization’s executive director and only paid staffer, told Montana Free Press. “It’s a reform that gives more voice to the people.”
Ranked choice voting is an alternative to the system used in Montana and most other states — sometimes called “first-past-the-post voting” — with a relatively simple premise.
In the predominant (and, in Montana, current) system, a voter can vote for only one candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins (except, with some frequency, in races for the presidency) regardless of whether they receive a majority of the vote. In a ranked choice voting system, a candidate has to carry more than half the electorate to win. Though there are some variations in practice, that outcome is often accomplished by allowing voters to rank a field of candidates in order of preference. If the top candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, they win. If they don’t top 50%, voters who voted for the candidate with the least support will have their votes reallocated to their second-ranked choice. That process continues until some candidate wins a majority.
(It’s worth distinguishing the practice from runoff elections, in which voters winnow down their choices over two separate elections if no candidate wins outright in the first round. In ranked choice voting — sometimes called an “instant runoff,” though tallying can take weeks — voters rank general election candidates only once, and any necessary reallocations occur within the same election.)
A successful ballot initiative made Maine the first state to use ranked choice voting for federal elections in 2018, and that year’s race for the state’s second U.S. House district seat provides a neat illustration of the practice: Incumbent GOP Rep. Bruce Poliquin got the most votes in the first round but didn’t reach a majority. The bottom candidates had their votes reallocated, and Democrat Jared Golden ultimately won with 50.5% of the vote.
More recently, in 2020, Alaska adopted the practice for all state and federal elections, once again elevating ranked choice voting into the national conversation.
“The first and primary benefit, that there’s a majority winner, has a natural positive effect in that when legislators know they have a majority mandate, they’re going to better represent the people when they’re in office, because they’re going to have to come back and get elected by a majority,” Buhler said.
He said other benefits include a diminished risk of vote-splitting, potentially encouraging candidates to run who otherwise wouldn’t because they fear sapping votes from similar candidates.
Criticisms of ranked choice voting usually focus on the perception that it is more complicated or costly to administer and that it might confuse voters. And while research suggests that ranked choice voting can increase people’s willingness to vote for third-party or independent candidates, it also shows that the practice tends to reward comparatively moderate candidates, especially incumbents — an effect that might rankle those wishing to move the major parties to the left or right.
Conservatives have also taken aim at the process following the election of Democrat Mary Peltola over Republican former governor Sarah Palin in the 2022 race for Alaska’s at-large U.S. House seat, the first race to use ranked choice voting in the state. Even before she officially lost the race, Palin made her opposition to ranked choice voting a central part of her campaign, taking cues from former President Donald Trump, who suggested the practice can be “crooked as hell” at an Anchorage rally.
For their part, GOP Montana legislators passed a bill in the 2023 session that proactively bans ranked choice voting in the state. Idaho has passed similar legislation. During a House floor debate in March, bill sponsor Rep. Lyn Hellegaard, R-Missoula, said ranked choice voting is too complicated, could delay election results, and would disenfranchise voters who didn’t support any of the final candidates. Others grounded their criticism in their politics, painting ranked choice voting as a left-wing scheme designed to re-elect Democratic Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.
Buhler said RCV Montana is working with legislators and the public to grow support for ranked choice voting ahead of the 2025 session, when lawmakers could potentially reverse the ban.
“Our mission will be to educate over the next 16 months, and hopefully in 2025 we have the people’s support and the organizational support to help legislators feel confident that this is what Montana wants as a solution,” he said. And in a state that is Alaska-ish in character — sprawling, mostly rural with a politically independent streak — he thinks that’s possible.
For now, there’s no initiative on the table to make Montana a ranked-choice state. But there are proposals for some changes that Buhler said will get part of the way there.
As MTFP reported last week, a group of former lawmakers and a frequent third-party candidate are pushing a pair of initiatives that would a) replace partisan primaries with open primaries in which the top four candidates advance regardless of party, and b) require a majority vote to win an election. The text of the initiative suggests that it’s up to lawmakers to figure out what happens if a winning candidate hasn’t won a majority of the vote. One possible solution would be ranked choice voting.
“Primaries are one of the biggest problems that we have to solve,” Buhler said. “That’s the biggest place where partisanship exists.”
RCV Montana is a mostly volunteer-run Missoula-based organization, Buhler said, though the group has connections with some national voting reform organizations like FairVote and Unite America that have provided resources and support. Buhler said his salary is paid through small donations and grants.
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