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Ranked choice voting: A more democratic system for North Carolina?

Ice cream that melts more slowly, with fewer ice crystals? Scientists are on the case.
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Ranked choice is, basically, like saying, 'I'll have chocolate. But if they're out, I'll have strawberry -- and if they're out of that, vanilla."

Advocates say it's as easy as rating your favorite kinds of ice cream.

Many voters agonize over picking a favorite candidate in a crowded field, especially if their values are split between different candidates or different parties. But there may be a solution: an alternate type of ballot that lets voters vote with their hearts, with no fear that their votes will be wasted.

It's called ranked choice voting, and there's an entire non-profit dedicated to bringing it to North Carolina.

The most common mode of democracy in the United States is called the “voting plurality method,” in which each voter selects just their top choice for a seat. But Diane Silver from the non-partisan Better Ballot North Carolina says that “winner takes all” style of voting has a number of problems, including expensive runoff elections, political meddling in primaries, and the struggle of “wasted votes," particularly when voters go for a third party.

"People get blamed and shamed their friends will tell them, 'Oh, my God, don't vote for a third party, you're wasting your vote',” Silver explained in a Zoom call to the Lower Cape Fear League of Women Voters. "I should be allowed to support the third party without being shamed about it."

Ranked choice ballots can end that problem, by allowing a third party voter to cast an alternate vote in case their favorite doesn't win. It may sound complicated, but Silver says it’s actually fairly intuitive.

“When you get your ballot, instead of just checking off one candidate, you get to rank order the candidates in the order of preference: First choice, second choice, third choice, it's super easy," she explains.

"We rank things all the time. You know, 'please go get me ice cream.' 'Sure, what flavor do you want?' 'Give me chocolate. If they don't have chocolate, please get me strawberry, they don't have strawberry, please get me vanilla.' That's a ranked choice.”

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Better Ballot North Carolina
Better Ballot North Carolina illustrates the ranked choice ballot with ice cream.

It can work just the same way with politics. A voter selects multiple candidates in order of who they prefer, and initially, the votes get counted up with every voter’s first choice. If no one gets more than 50% of the vote in the election in the first round of counting, then the candidate with the fewest votes gets eliminated. And those who selected the disqualified candidate as their top choice get their second choice tallied and added to the other voter pools.

“The lowest vote getter gets eliminated, we have a runoff, it's an instant runoff," Silver explains. "If your first choice is still in the running then it counts again. If your first choice got eliminated, your second choice counts, if your second choice got eliminated your third choice counts.”

The rounds go on like that until a candidate reaches 50% of the vote. No one’s vote goes uncounted because their top choice was eliminated, and no one gets more than one vote.

Silver says ranked choice voting has myriad benefits, including a clear mandate for any candidate who wins. At least half the electorate voted for the winner, even if they were some voters’ second or third choice. It saves money and time for expensive runoff elections, because the runoff is automatic instead. And ranked choice ballots also help with partisanship. "Our voting system rewards negativity, candidates are incentivized to go down the mudslinging path, because it works."

But with ranked choice voting, the incentives change, Silver says. "Because those second choice or third choice votes are needed to get over the hurdle of 50%, to get a majority. You don't want to alienate your opponent's supporters."

She adds that ranked choice voting can simplify an election for voters. Often, voters in the United States play a political calculous to determine which candidate is "most electable," rather than which candidate is closest to their own views.

“With rank choice voting. You can simply vote your heart you can vote honestly," Silver says. "You don't have to strategize, and you won't hurt your favorite by voting for a second choice or a third choice. And you won't help your least favorite by voting for your first choice first.”

And the alternate system helps make sure every vote counts, even when someone votes early. Silver points to the 2020 Democratic primary as an example, where early voters sometimes saw their preferred candidate drop out before their state's primary.

"If you voted for a candidate who subsequently drops out before your election day, when your votes get counted, your vote got wasted. And that happened to more than 2 million voters on Super Tuesday,” Silver says. Had the primaries allowed for ranked choice voting, those voters wouldn’t have been disenfranchised.

Ranked Choice voting is used in national or state elections in Australia, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, and it’s used in 22 jurisdictions in the United States. Silver says two entire states have adopted the ballot type: Utah through a vote in the legislature, and Maine through a ballot initiative.

Silver says ranked choice voting will have to come from the legislature in North Carolina: a ballot measure isn't a viable option in this state.

That's why Silver is looking for volunteers. "We want to be able to go to legislators and say this many thousands and thousands of voters in North Carolina have told us that they think this is a good idea."