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Another warning about Ranked Choice Voting from Washington’s Secretary of State

Updated: May 17

Although Washington already has a Top Two open primary process, there have been proposals in recent years to try to impose Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) in the state again. A previous local experiment with RCV was quickly repealed by 71% of Pierce County voters. Concerned about the new RCV proposals, Washington’s Secretary of State Steve Hobbs recently penned a statewide op-ed titled: “Ranked-choice voting sounds good. But here’s why it would disenfranchise voters.”

WA’s Secretary of State Hobbs and Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton wrote:

“Before signing onto ranked-choice voting, we ask that you listen to the experts who ensure every Washington voter counts. It is not simple to convert elections from checking one box to ranking several choices. Washington’s developmentally disabled adults, including Secretary Hobbs’ son, can and do vote. For many people, it requires significant effort to pick one candidate per race. Ranking multiple choices is a more complicated task. People new to American democracy face similar challenges to understanding the system. Secretary Hobbs’ mother faced this struggle as a new immigrant.

Even advocates of changing voting methods have conceded that 29% of voters don’t rank multiple candidates in ranked-choice elections. This means nearly a third of ballots have reduced influence, an unacceptable deprivation. In findings released earlier this year, Princeton University professor Nolan McCarty examined ranked-choice elections in New York City and Alaska and found that minority voters are disproportionately shortchanged by this construct.”

Here is a quote from the Princeton University professor who conducted the RCV study referenced by Secretary Hobbs:

“In recent years, ranked choice voting has been hyped as a solution to many perceived problems in American elections. Unfortunately, the hype has often outpaced the evidence. My research raises major concerns about whether RCV may work to further reduce the electoral influence of racial and ethnic minority communities.”

These comments are similar to what former California Governor Jerry Brown said when vetoing a ranked-choice voting bill in 2016:

“In a time when we want to encourage more voter participation, we need to keep voting simple. Ranked-choice voting is overly complicated and confusing. I believe it deprives voters of genuinely informed choice.”

Current RCV proponents point to a 2020 election that saw 50.55% of voters in Alaska adopt a Top 4 and ranked-choice voting ballot measure. That new election process has been so unpopular, however, Alaska voters will now have the opportunity this fall to repeal it with the certification of a new ballot measure.

As the debate around RCV continues across our region, it is important to remember that there is a big difference between open primaries and ranked-choice voting. Moving to a clean open primary is a debate worth having (preferably a Top Two). Adopting open primaries, however, need not be limited to a take-it-or-leave-it proposition tied to the controversy of ranked-choice voting. 

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