Benton County Blazes A Trail for Ranked Choice Voting in Oregon
Hayat Norimine :: Sightline Institute
For more than a decade, Oregon state Representative Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, has been advocating for ranked choice voting in Benton County . So it was stirring for him when he finally got to rank candidates on his own ballot for the November general election.
“That’s the culmination of the journey,” Rayfield said. “It is extremely fulfilling when you get to that moment. There’s nothing like that.”
Benton County voters in 2016 passed a measure that implemented ranked choice voting for county commissioner races. That measure took effect for the first time this year—allowing third-party candidates from the Pacific Green Party and Libertarian Party to compete on the ballot without serving as spoilers. Rayfield and attorney Blair Bobier co-petitioned for the measure then, and said the county provided a local example of what ranked choice voting could look like in Oregon. Now, they’re looking to float a statewide bill.
Rayfield said drafts of the legislation have already been sent to legislative attorneys. He expects to introduce a bill in December or January. During the session, he hopes to explore implementing ranked choice voting in two areas where he thinks such an electoral system upgrade could make “a meaningful difference”—nonpartisan statewide races that often attract more than two candidates and closed party primaries, where candidates often move onto the general election with less than a majority of the votes.
“There’s a lot of momentum in different communities from all corners of the state,” Rayfield said. “What we have been doing is trying to act as facilitators to start a conversation about what should ranked choice voting look like in Oregon?”
The benefits of ranked choice voting are gaining familiarity
Ranked choice voting would allow voters to rank one or more candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives 50 percent of the votes in the first round, the candidate with the fewest votes gets eliminated and those votes get redistributed to voters’ second choices. The process continues until a candidate tips over 50 percent of votes.
Maine has used ranked choice voting for statewide elections since 2018, and a dozen cities have been using it for years. It’s gaining momentum: last year New York City voters adopted it, and this year, five cities in California, Minnesota, and Colorado passed their own ranked choice voting measures for local elections. Alaska’s measure on the November ballot to eliminate party primaries and approve ranked choice voting or general elections has passed.
Ranked ballots give voters the option to rank more than one candidate, meaning their vote can still count even if their first choices are eliminated. Advocates for ranked choice voting in Oregon have said it will give voters more choices by allowing more diverse candidates to run. It would let voters rank a third-party or independent candidate first and a more mainstream candidate second, without worrying the third-party could “spoil” the race for their second choice.
“RCV eliminates the fear that binds voters to their parties, and liberates them to vote for what they want rather than the ‘lesser of two evils,’” Mike Beilstein, a Pacific Green party candidate in Benton, wrote in an FAQ he sent to news outlets. “We Greens hope that this will force the major parties to be more responsive to public opinion.” Beilstein has also said he’s a strong supporter of statewide ranked choice voting.
It could also potentially eliminate the need for a primary in some races—which proponents say would increase turnout and reduce voter fatigue, as well as save governments money. Bobier said it cost Oregon $3 million to $4 million to administer the 2012 primary.
After decades of advocating ranked-choice voting, Bobier sees the new system “gaining momentum like a snowball running down a snow-covered hill.” The 2016 presidential election brought much more awareness to different kinds of election reform that would lead to better voter representation, Bobier said. Another high-profile example was President Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination in a crowded field despite garnering only about one-third of votes in the primary.
“It’s amazing,” Bobier said. “There’s just a lot more awareness of it, there’s a lot more openness to changing the system, there’s a lot more understanding of the need for it.”
How did ranked choice voting turn out in Benton County, Oregon?
Proponents argue that the system leads to less negative campaigning, since candidates would need broader appeal to win and would be courting first and second choice votes. Some of these benefits to ranked choice voting were seen in Benton County this year, Bobier said. Pacific Green and Progressive Party candidate Mike Beilstein and Democratic candidate Xan Augerot, who both ran for a county commissioner position, at times campaigned together so voters could pick the other as their second choice. Augerot won with 58 percent of the votes, while Beilstein attracted 10 percent of the first-choice votes.
Another benefit of ranked choice voting is that it gives the winner more information about what voters want. Augerot saw Beilstein’s strong third-party showing as evidence that voters in her district care about climate change . In the other race, Libertarian Cody Serdar pulled in more than 4 percent of first-choice votes without changing Democrat Nancy Wyse’s decisive victory with 64 percent of the votes.
But Bobier said he’s also heard feedback that some voters were confused about whether they could choose just one candidate, if they had no other preference. Bobier said he wants to ensure there’s enough voter education so everyone understands they have that option if that’s what they choose.
First Benton County, then the state?
Ben Gaskins, assistant professor of political science at Lewis and Clark College, said ranked choice voting is gaining appeal among progressive voters as a more egalitarian way of voting.
“My sense of Oregon is that it likes to try new things and to be on the cutting edge of democratic advances,” Gaskin said. “It would seem like Oregon is the perfect setting for another ranked choice voting measure.” Just as Portland, Maine, set an example for all Mainers, leading to state-wide adoption of ranked choice ballots, Benton County may blaze a new trail for Oregonians.
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