Amid all the postgame analysis that has been flying about in the aftermath of last Saturday’s municipal elections, one simple and striking fact bears mentioning: up until a few election cycles ago, sitting council members were rarely challenged. That has changed – big time. Last Saturday’s elections saw competitive races in nearly every district, and three incumbents—David Blewett, Adam Bazaldua, and Carolyn King Arnold—have been forced into runoffs. In general, that’s a good thing. More candidates mean more ideas are brought to the table, more citizens are engaged in the electoral process, and council members are more responsive to the constituents who put them in office.
But this new era of Dallas politics has also created a situation in which runoff elections are almost inevitable, particularly in crowded races where there is no incumbent. This means the city’s general election basically functions like a primary. We saw this in the 2019 mayoral election and in the 2017 mayoral election. When 9 or 10 candidates are running for a single office there is virtually no way one of those candidates is going to secure 50.01 percent of the votes. The first election narrows down the field; the real decision is made in the runoff. That’s a problem. Municipal voter turnout is already very low, and it is even lower in the runoffs. They’re also expensive. But there’s a simple solution: ranked-choice voting.
Ranked choice voting — which we’ve mentioned before — is an electoral process that is gaining popularity throughout the country, particularly in local elections, precisely because it remedies some of these problems. According to FairVote.org, 22 municipalities and states have adopted ranked-choice voting, including some large cities like New York, Oakland, and San Francisco. Ten additional cities and states, including Alaska, are considering or have adopted ranked-choice voting for future use. Austin just adopted it over the weekend.
So, what is ranked-choice voting and how does it work?
How Ranked Choice Voting Works
With ranked-choice voting, voters don’t pick a single candidate for office, rather, they rank their favored candidates in order. You can mark as many or as few candidates as you like, and you still need 50 percent of the votes to win. But if first choice votes are tallied and no candidate has secured a majority of the first-choice picks, an automatic runoff is trigged. All the second-choice votes are added to the tallies of the two candidates with the most first choice votes. The candidate with the most first and second choice votes wins the election.
I was thinking of this voting system yesterday while listening to Philip Kingston and TC Fleming break down the election results on their podcast Loserville. The questions heading into each of the runoffs they examined are almost all the same: Which losing candidate’s voters are most likely to support which of the two candidates still standing, and how many of those voters are likely to show up to polls again to cast that vote?
With a ranked-choice system this process would have already been taken care of in the general election. We’d already know, for example, which of Elizabeth Viney’s supporters prefer Paul Ridley or David Blewett because they would have ranked one of those candidates as their second choice – or, of course, not at all. There would also likely be some Ridley supporters whose second choice was Blewett, and vice-versa. After those choices were added up, someone would come out on top, and the election would be over.
What Ranked-Choice Voting Would Solve in Dallas
By effectively baking the runoff election into the initial vote, ranked-choice voting ensures that all voters who turn out for the general election have their voice heard in the final result. It also helps eliminate the costly, time consuming, and combative runoff campaigns. The city council still has business to take care of, but now three of its members are managing tough runoff campaigns, prolonging the already distracting election season.
Runoffs also create an opportunity for more dollars to be poured into races, tying more financial strings to candidates’ elections. And its not just campaign dollars that exert new influence during runoff season. Third and fourth place candidates will find themselves courted by the remaining candidates for endorsements, and those bottom finishers may leverage their voting bases for positions on boards and commissions within city government. To a certain extent, this is the way politics is played.
But ranked-choice voting would help better ensure that your district’s next plan commissioner or park board member isn’t appointed merely because they helped shovel votes toward the winning candidate in the runoff.
Ranked-Choice Voting Expands Electoral Participation
Beyond the specific benefits as it relates to Dallas runoffs, ranked choice voting can also improve upon some of the poorer aspects of American politics, including the way the system forces some people out of the electoral process and the negative tone that characterizes much political campaigning. Maine adopted ranked choice voting after candidates with less than 50 percent of the vote prevailed in nine of 11 gubernatorial elections between 1994 and 2014.
During that time, candidates supported by less than the majority ended up winning elections because they were able to effectively split the opposition of the majority of voters. Ranked-choice voting allows voters the freedom to vote for the candidates they support without fear of a “wasted vote” that effectively allows a candidate with niche support to come out on top.
There is also an argument that ranked choice voting can limit negative campaigning. If a candidate knows that his or her election may ride on securing second choice votes from an opponent, there is an incentive to campaign on one’s own qualities and merits, rather than banking on winning as the “lesser than two evils” candidate.
Supporters of ranked-choice voting have also argued that it helps encourage more people running for office. Potential candidates are sometimes discouraged to run by political parties, municipal organizations, entrenched power players, or other candidates out of fear that they will split the vote of a single base of support. With ranked-choice voting, if two candidates with similar positions run for the same office, rather than siphoning off each other’s support, they may hope to pick up the second-choice votes of the other candidates and still carry the support of a unified base to office.
How to Implement Ranked Choice Voting
The switch to ranked choice voting would require a public referendum, and there are several organizations in Texas that are working to expand the system throughout the state. Austin’s approval of ranked-choice voting is their first big success, but it has also raised a legal challenge.
Texas Election Code requires candidates receive “a majority of the total number of votes received by all candidates in office” in order to win their election. Austin’s city attorneys interpret this language to mean that the state law does not permit a ranking in lieu of a tally of total votes, and they believe the state code will need to be amended before the city implements ranked-choice.
However, Jim Wick, the campaign manager for Austinites for Progressive Reform, which helped push for the adoption of ranked-choice voting in the capital, believes there is some interpretive wiggle room in the state elections code. He told the Austin Monitor that because Austin is a home-rule municipality, it can adopt ranked-choice voting because it isn’t specifically mentioned in state law.
The good news for Dallas is that Austin is already kicking the tires on these legal issues, and we’ll know soon enough whether changes would need to be made to state law before the city can adopt the practice. That means the campaign for ranked-choice voting can begin in earnest. Pursing that goal would represent a much more effective use of local campaign mangers’ time and talent than getting embroiled in yet another runoff season.