Gail Symons with Civics307 testifies for the House Corporations, Elections & Political Subdivisions Committee on Friday. (Matt Idler for Cowboy State Daily)

Committee Kills Ranked Choice Voting For Wyoming

in elections/News/Legislature

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By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com

An effort to let Wyoming municipalities run ranked choice elections in their own communities was rejected by the Legislature’s House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee on Friday afternoon. 

Ranked choice voting, also known as an instant runoff election, gives voters an option to rank candidates in order of preference: first, second, third and beyond. Votes that do not help a voter’s top choices win count for the next choice.

The legislation would have allowed municipalities to run local ranked choice pilot programs. 

The biggest concerns about ranked choice expressed during Friday’s committee meeting were potential for “ballot exhaustion” and for candidates with less than a majority of first-choice votes winning elections.

House Bill 49 opens the door to a complicated, convoluted and needlessly complicated voting process,” said Secretary of State Chuck Gray, who lobbied against the bill. He said it’s “antithetical to Wyoming’s current uniform procedures for elections, while posing immediate and logistical complications.”

The committee voted 6-3 against House Bill 49.



Leads To ‘Perverse Incentives’

Under a ranked choice system, if no candidate gets more than 50% of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is disqualified. 

The votes are then tabulated again, and the voter’s second preference picks up the eliminated votes. 

Gray said these procedures lead to a number of “perverse incentives.” 

Ranked choice elections eliminate primaries.

Voter Exhaustion

Gray brought up the concept of ballot exhaustion, a phenomenon when a ballot is thrown out if it fails to list a candidate after a voter’s first choice that is eliminated from contention. 

“What appears to be the terminology ‘exhaustion’”’ is in our current system called ‘“’undervoting,’” said Gail Symons, a political activist who runs the Civics307 blog. 

An undervote happens when a voter chooses not to vote for anyone in a particular race. 

Symons also said it’s inaccurate to say votes eliminated aren’t counted, making the comparison to a standard election where a voter’s preferred candidate didn’t win.

“Yours counted, but you just didn’t win,” she said.


Secretary of State Chuck Gray testified against House Bill 49 on Friday. (Matt Idler for Cowboy State Daily)

Turnout Reports Mixed

Gray mentioned how in Maine’s 2018 ranked choice election for U.S. Congress, a Republican received the most votes in the first round but lost to a Democrat in the second round. 

He also made the claim that ranked choice voting is linked to lower voter turnout.

According to Fair Vote, a nonpartisan ranked choice advocacy group, RCV increases turnout, while other research suggests it has little or no effect in the turnout of local U.S. elections. 

RCV actually led to a 10% increase in turnout in Minneapolis and higher participation in San Francisco, cities Gray specifically mentioned as declining during his testimony.

“The data’s there,” Gray said.

He also said places with RCV like Alaska and New York City have taken weeks to return results from their elections. Lowe said Alaska waited multiple weeks in its recent congressional election to declare results to ensure all votes were counted. 

In the 2021 New York City mayor’s race, the election plunged into a state of chaos when the city’s board of elections released a new tally of votes, then removed the tabulations from its website after citing a “discrepancy.”

“Can you imagine the decline in the confidence of our elections?” Gray questioned. 

Enactment

The bill assumes that municipalities will conduct or process elections and pay for all associated costs. Since the current election equipment used in Wyoming cannot process RCV elections, new equipment would have to be bought.

Gray said buying new equipment and training to use it would cost $100,000 in the first year and $230,000 in the year after, but that’s only on a statewide level. For each county, RCV would be about $10,000. 

“I urge this committee not to forward this legislation,” he said.

‘Disappointed’

Jennifer Lowe, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, said HB 49 could have been a solution for addressing elections where the winning candidate didn’t receive a plurality of the vote. 

“I’m disappointed that the committee didn’t give cities the opportunity to try something that might work,” Lowe said. “I’m frustrated that the interim committee came up with a bill that was permissive, that was optional for cities and that applied to nonpartisan races.

“States and local governments and federalism are the laboratories of reform, and having cities experiment with reform like ranked choice voting gives us an idea of how it might work if you scaled it up.”

Multiple people who testified said about 80% of those who tried ranked choice in Utah found it very simple to understand. 

Utah has been running a pilot program for municipal ranked choice voting since 2021. Although about 23 municipalities around that state have tried it, a committee in the Utah Legislature rejected a bill to expand its use last year. 

There also was controversy regarding its use when a mayor’s race in one of its larger suburban cities was decided by 21 votes out of more than 21,000 ballots cast, according to the American Enterprise Institute. 

The second-place candidate accepted that he had likely lost but asked for a recount just to be certain. But the county clerk administering the election claimed there was no provision in the RCV pilot program for a recount.

Nonpartisan A Non-Issue

Many proponents of RCV say it reduces partisanship in elections, but Wyoming’s municipal elections already are nonpartisan.

“After hearing testimony for hours over the interim, the committee decided the best option was to start at the lowest level of nonpartisan races to see how ranked choice voting works,” Lowe said. “See how the voters liked it, see how the voters administered it, see if it was confusing to voters.”

Laramie resident Brett Glass mentioned how ranked choice voting elections eliminate primaries, which he said would have more of an impact in Laramie because many University of Wyoming voters are not in town for the mid-August election.

“Primaries primarily serve the purpose of helping parties to choose the candidates that they’re going to support,” he said. “They’re not really appropriate for nonpartisan elections.”

Glass also mentioned how city council elections in Laramie have become more expensive than ever, sometimes even more so than state legislative races. He blamed his narrow loss in this recent election on his opponent having “one big banker” as a donor.

Cody resident Richard Jones, a Park County GOP committee member and election judge, said most voters would not do enough research on every candidate participating, which would lead to elections becoming personality contests. He said voters should be able to associate candidates with a particular political party rather than individual ideology.

“Myself, I personally don’t have two to three candidates in mind, I have a candidate of my choice,” he said. “In ranked choice, you have a whole list of names: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8. In many cases, voters don’t even vote for all the ranked choice people.”

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