Ranked-choice Voting: What is Montana so scared of?

Ranked-choice Voting: What is Montana so scared of?

By Eric Buhler

Ranked-choice voting (RCV), also known as instant-runoff voting, is a nonpartisan voting system that allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference rather than selecting a single candidate. In a ranked-choice voting system, voters mark their ballot by ranking the candidates in order of preference, such as first choice, second choice, third choice, and so on.

In the first round of vote counting, only the first-choice votes are counted. If one candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes, that candidate wins the election. However, if no candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and then the second-choice votes on those ballots are counted instead. This process is repeated until one candidate receives a majority of the votes.

In our current plurality system, a candidate could win with a mere 33% of the vote. This leaves nearly 70% of voters not choosing the winner, sometimes feeling unrepresented, and caught in a game of splitting and wasting their vote. The purpose of RCV is to ensure that the winning candidate has broad support among voters. By allowing voters to rank candidates, RCV can reduce the impact of candidates splitting the vote, promote positive campaigning, and it has been shown to reduce the amount of wasted votes by three times.

A noisy minority, who don’t trust the intelligence of voters, testified at the hearing for HB 598 that RCV is complicated and claimed that voters are unhappy with RCV. However, a vast majority of those surveyed have found it very easy to use and want to use it again–between 75% and 94% (depending on the location surveyed).

RCV is used in several countries around the world, including Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand. In the United States, several cities have adopted RCV for local elections, including San Francisco, Oakland, Austin, New York City, Minneapolis and twenty-three cities in Utah. Some states have also adopted RCV for statewide elections, including Maine and Alaska, and seven states use RCV for military and overseas voting.

However, in Montana, even though no jurisdiction uses RCV (and some would argue that our constitution does not currently allow it to be used), HB 598 seeks to preemptively ban RCV from being used or even considered in Montana. 

When HB 598 reached the floor, State Administration Committee member, Rep. Paul Green, changed his vote. When he realized that this ban would expressly limit local communities from choosing RCV for their local elections, he went from supporting the ban to opposing the ban. Had he considered this before, this bill would have died in committee. Despite this important consideration, the ban passed the House on March 3rd, with fourteen Republicans and all Democrats opposing the ban. You will be happy to know that Great Falls representatives George Nikolakakos (HD26) and Scott Kerns (HD23) were among those opposing this ban. 

We can still stop this ban. Please reach out to your Senators, especially committee member Sen. Wendy McKamey (SD12), and ask them to oppose this ban on RCV.

Eric Buhler is the Executive Director of RCV Montana, a grassroots nonpartisan nonprofit that seeks to educate Montana about alternative voting methods such as Ranked-choice Voting.