Could ranked-choice voting be the way Rhode Islanders vote in primaries?

Senate Commission studies alternatives to plurality voting

By: - June 1, 2023 3:20 pm

Sen. Samuel Zurier formed the Commission to Study Non-Plurality Voting Methods after he won an election in which he only received 31% of the vote. (Photo by Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

In October 2021, Sen. Samuel Zurier, a Providence Democrat, won a five-person Democratic primary with a little more than 31% of the vote. The second and third top vote-getters told him they believed they could have won if only the other had dropped out of the race.

“It didn’t leave a good taste in the mouths of voters and led to a lot of questions,” Zurier said. “For about a year, I didn’t know if I was really the person the voters chose.” 

Zurier is not the only Rhode Island politician with an existential crisis caused by plurality voting. In 2022, Gov. Dan McKee and Mayor Brett Smiley won their primaries with 33% and 42% of the vote, respectively.

That’s why earlier this year, Zurier formed a Senate commission to study ranked-choice voting and other possible changes to how the state conducts primary elections for statewide races. The commission met Wednesday afternoon, May 31, to hear testimony from residents representing all sides of the political spectrum who are in favor of seeing some changes.

Rhode Island’s elections currently operate under a “first-past-the-post” voting system, where voters choose one candidate on a ballot and the candidate with the highest number of votes wins.

John Marion, the executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, testified before the commission that this system forces voters to pick who they believe is most electable, not who is closest to their ideological preference.

“It limits choices for voters as well,” Marion said. 

One solution? Ranked-choice voting.

Gail Fenumiai, director of the Alaska Division of Elections, laughs with Brian Jackson, election program manager, on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022, at division headquarters in Juneau as they prepare to reveal the results of Alaska’s first ranked choice election. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

How does ranked choice voting work?

Under a ranked-choice system, voters rank the candidates in order of preference in races when there are more than two candidates.

This diagram shows the unofficial Aug. 31, 2022, distribution of votes in Alaska’s first ranked-choice election, a special election for U.S. House. (Graphic by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Think of ranked-choice voting like your commute. You have your preferred route, but if there’s traffic, road work, or an accident, you take a backup route. 

Ranked-choice voting also relies on backups. 

If a candidate gets a majority of first-preference votes, the election is over and that candidate wins. If no one reaches 51% of the vote, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated from the race, and the next choice on that candidate’s voters’ ballots is reallocated and tallied. The process repeats until someone wins a majority.

Marion, along with other advocates at the commission hearing, said ranked choice voting leads to higher voter turnout, doesn’t pressure candidates to drop out to avoid being a “spoiler,” and incentivizes candidates to engage more with communities.

Maine first in nation

Rhode Island would not be the first New England state to experiment with ranked-choice voting. Maine was the first to  adopt the system for all primary elections and federal general elections in 2018. Marion said Maine voters have had very positive experiences with the change.

However, a 2021 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that ranked-choice voters had “significantly lower levels of voter confidence, voter satisfaction, and ease of use.” The same study also found that  fewer voters found the ballot to be difficult to fill out.

Alaska last year became the second state to use ranked-choice voting in state and federal elections. Hawaii uses the model in its special elections. More than 50 municipalities, including New York City and Minneapolis, use ranked-choice voting for its local elections.

Marion acknowledged this system might not be perfect for every election in the state but is appropriate in situations involving many candidates — such as the special election primary for Rhode Island’s first congressional district scheduled for Sept. 5. More than a dozen Democrats have announced their bids to run for the seat vacated by U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, who resigned effective Wednesday to take a new job as president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation. Under the current plurality system, Zurier said a candidate with as few as 8,000 votes could be the winner of this race.

John Marion, executive director for Common Cause Rhode Island, speaks in favor of ranked-choice voting at the State House on May 31. (Photo by Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

Marion does not recommend using ranked-choice voting for general elections. The reason is the Rhode Island Constitution specifies that in all elections for state, city, town, ward or district officers, the candidate receiving the highest number of votes wins.

Instead, Marion suggests using the 2024 presidential preference primary as a testing ground.

Here’s how ranked-choice voting would work in a presidential primary: Voters rank candidates 1, 2, 3. If your first choice doesn’t have a chance to win, your vote counts for your next choice. (Courtesy: FairVote)

Legislation sponsored by Sen. Valerie Lawson, an East Providence Democrat, would institute ranked-choice voting for the 2024 presidential preference primaries. A companion bill is sponsored in the House by Rep. Rebecca Kisliak, a Providence Democrat. Both bills were held for further study in March.

Logistical nightmare?

Though Marion said Common Cause supports the implementation of ranked choice voting in primaries, there are some situations in which it might not work.

One, he said, is in races with just two candidates — as it is not necessary to do rankings.

Another issue, Marion said, is that it can lead to longer waits to get official results. He said this was the case in New York City’s 2021 mayoral election, which went through eight rounds of tabulation before Eric Adams was declared the winner of the race. 

“They kind of screwed it up in New York,” Marion said in an interview.

Miguel Nunez, the deputy director of the Rhode Island Board of Elections, said that could also happen in Rhode Island if the state changes to ranked-choice voting.

Board of Elections Deputy Director Miguel Nunez said a change to ranked-choice voting could lead to logistical issues to the way Rhode Island runs elections. (Photo by Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

He told commission members that along with the potential of multiple rounds of tabulation, the state’s current election software requires workers to physically take USB drives from each of Rhode Island’s 461 polling locations in order to conduct rankings.

“That would take one or two additional days,” he said. “A delay of that nature would probably not be an issue in a general election, but perhaps in a primary.”

Nunez added that the state would also have to purchase additional voting machines to reduce time waiting in line, along with creating new ballots that could run up to four pages in multilingual communities.

In response, Zurier asked Nunez to inquire with the Secretary of State’s Office in Maine to see how they adjusted to the change. Zurier said he would incorporate the response into his final report, which must be presented to the Rhode Island Senate by Oct. 31.


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Christopher Shea
Christopher Shea

Christopher Shea covers politics, the criminal justice system and transportation for the Rhode Island Current.