In the wake of last November’s presidential election, legislators in 33 states – including Wyoming – have spent the past few months debating more than 165 bills that would add new requirements in order to vote. Sponsors of this legislation characterize it as an attempt to prevent widespread voter fraud.
The problem? There’s no “widespread voter fraud” in the United States. Despite the ongoing claims to the contrary, no evidence has been presented that widespread fraud affected the outcome. (And an April 2020 MIT study of 20 years worth of election data found fraud “occurs only in 0.00006% of instances nationally.”)
That doesn’t mean we’re opposed to voter ID laws, as long as they don’t keep people from voting because of limited access to the place to get a state-issued identification, or end up being a new form of poll tax because people have to pay to get said ID. We just think that, once again, it’s a case of Wyoming lawmakers creating new laws that address non-problems, rather than focusing on the things that need to be fixed.
Instead of creating new obstacles to citizens exercising their right to elect people to represent them, we wish they’d focus on making sure the people elected truly are representing the majority of voters.
To their credit, some lawmakers made such an attempt during the general session that wraps up this week. Had Senate File 145 been approved, it would have required a runoff election following Wyoming’s primary if the top vote-getter failed to earn more than half of the votes cast.
This has happened many times, including in 2018, when current Gov. Mark Gordon advanced to the general election after earning about 33% of the Republican vote, which was split between six candidates. It also happened in 2016, when U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., won the GOP primary with about 40% in a race with nine candidates.
We agree with SF 145 sponsor Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, that it would be better for each party to put forward candidates that have a “mandate” from their members. But we also agree with Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, that runoffs can cause the winner to be “broke and exhausted” by the time they make it to the general election. Which is why we’re glad SF 145 died on a 15-14 vote in the Senate, with one senator excused.
But it won’t take an extensive interim study to come up with a simple solution to this issue. It’s called ranked-choice voting, and here’s how it works:
Instead of picking just one candidate in each contested race, voters rank their picks in order of preference – first choice, second choice, third choice, etc. When ballots are counted, if a candidate has more than 50% of the votes, they win outright. But if no candidate earns a majority of first-choice votes, a new count is triggered.
The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and all of the second-choice votes from those who picked that candidate as their first choice are distributed to the remaining candidates. This process continues until there is a candidate with a majority of the votes.
Why is this method better than our current plurality system? For many reasons, including:
Voters have more say – With ranked-choice voting, voters often have more say in who is elected, and they’re less likely to “waste” their vote on a third-party candidate or centrist who isn’t appealing to the party’s base.
Higher voter turnout – Because voters see that their vote is important, ranked-choice voting usually leads to higher turnout overall. In Wyoming, where Republicans dominate and many would-be voters decline to participate in primaries, especially in non-presidential election years, this is a way to encourage participation. (Of course, an even better one would be open primaries, but one step at a time.)
Eliminates the “spoiler” effect – Let’s face it: Sometimes, under our current system, the less-popular candidate wins because two other candidates split the votes of the majority. A Time magazine article from 2019 about ranked-choice voting points out that in the 2000 presidential election, neither George W. Bush nor Al Gore won a majority of the vote in Florida, and Gore was the second choice of many of third-party candidate Ralph Nader’s supporters. Had Florida used ranked-choice voting, the whole “hanging chad” fiasco likely would have been avoided.
Encourages more centrist and third-party candidates – Anyone who watches politics knows that both parties often nominate candidates that appeal to the extremes, where people who are most strongly motivated to vote live. But most Americans are actually somewhere in the middle, agreeing with Republicans on some issues and Democrats (or third-party candidates) on others.
Less negative campaigning – Because most candidates need to appeal to more than just the party’s base to win, ranked-choice voting discourages candidates from tearing one another down in order to build themselves up.
More women and minority candidates – Some studies have indicated that women and minorities do better under ranked-choice voting because voters tend to include more of them when “balancing” their ballot. Also, some believe women are more likely to run for office if they don’t feel like they have to run a negative campaign to win.
Less expensive than runoffs – Ranked-choice voting is better than runoffs because it accomplishes the same goal without the need to set up voting machines and hire extra poll workers for another election. It also saves candidates some campaign costs.
Of course, as with anything, ranked-choice voting has its critics. Some say it can confuse voters, causing them to make mistakes in filling out their ballot. Others say it discourages voting because it requires voters to read up more on candidates and requires more time in the voting booth.
Overall, though, we think the pros of ranked-choice voting far outweigh the cons. We encourage Wyoming lawmakers to give it a serious look in the interim, and come back next year with a proposal that can be put in place for 2024 and beyond.