Opinion: Texans shouldn't have to choose between extremes. It's time for ranked choice voting.
Matthew Germer :: Houston Chronicle
Elections in Texas need help.
While the battles over voter “fraud” and “suppression” have taken up all the oxygen in the room, there’s a fundamental flaw that we aren’t talking about in Texas enough. It’s when two candidates can advance to a runoff despite an overwhelming majority of voters not voting for them.
Following the death of Rep. Ron Wright to lung cancer and COVID-19 in February, 23 candidates filed for a special election to fill the seat. Republican Susan Wright, the widow of the late congressman, came in first with Republican Jake Ellzey narrowly edging out Democrat Jana Lynne Sanchez for second place. The GOP is now guaranteed to hold the seat after a runoff later this year.
So, what’s the problem?
Wright and Ellzey advanced with just 33 percent of the vote combined. Put differently, two-thirds of voters wanted someone else to represent them in Washington.
About 818,000 people live in the 6th Congressional District, and Wright led the field with just 15,000 votes. Ellzey added another 10,800. Special elections might be notorious for low turnout, but these results are preposterous.
It’s time for Texas to consider something new, something like Final-Five Voting.
Under Final-Five Voting , all eligible candidates are placed on the same primary ballot, with the top five vote-getters moving on to the general election. Next, voters rank those candidates using a process called “ranked-choice” or “instant-runoff” voting.
These reforms should not impact partisan balance — Democrats still win blue districts and Republicans still win red ones — but they do offer two meaningful improvements.
First, winning candidates have to appeal to a broad assortment of voters rather than a narrow slice of partisans. Second, because the winning candidate must have the support of a majority of the district, election outcomes will satisfy more voters.
In the case of Texas’ 6th District, Wright and Ellzey each moved on with narrow support from a segment of the Republican base: Wright focused her efforts on die-hard Trump supporters , while Ellzey appealed to more traditional Republican voters . Neither candidate sought support from independents and centrists, nor from the 44 percent of voters who backed a Democrat in November.
Under Final-Five Voting, however, the top five vote-getters from the primary would have moved on, rather than just Wright and Ellzey. The field would have included three Republicans (Wright, Ellzey and former U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Chief of Staff Brian Harrison) as well as two Democrats (Sanchez and Shawn Lassiter).
Since general election voters would rank all candidates, rather than choosing just one, being a voter’s second or third choice could be the difference between victory or defeat. This means that Wright and Ellzey, along with their additional competitors, would have an incentive to reach out to a wider swath of voters. The result would be less mudslinging within the party and more cross-partisan engagement. Either way, the GOP would likely hold the seat, but the winner would have earned a majority of support from voters, with more voters satisfied by the result.
Final-Five Voting encourages candidates to run positive campaigns and allows voters to have more say in the outcome. Other states are starting to see the benefits.
In November, Alaska voters passed Ballot Measure 2 , which, among other things, changed primary elections to a system where the top four candidates — rather than the top two — advance to the general election. The reforms have already made an impact as candidates look for support from a broader electorate.
In addition to Alaska, Maine famously instituted ranked-choice voting in its statewide elections in 2016, and a collection of legislators this year have introduced an effort to bring Final-Five Voting to Wisconsin. Virginia Republicans, meanwhile, will use ranked-choice voting to choose their gubernatorial candidate at their statewide convention this weekend.
The people of the 6th Congressional District may ultimately be served well by Wright or Ellzey, but the current system makes it difficult for either to claim broad support. With efforts by many in the state to consider electoral reform, Final-Five Voting just might be the easiest fix.
Germer is an elections fellow for the Governance Program at R Street Institute.
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