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A case for ranked choice voting in Pennsylvania

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(The Center Square) – Primary election candidates sometimes win by slim margins in Pennsylvania, prompting some state lawmakers to find new ways to ensure winners secure broader support from voters.

Rep. Christopher Rabb, D-Philadelphia, has recently introduced several pieces of election-related legislation – one of which would institute ranked choice voting at the municipal level.

Ranked choice voting, or RCV, is an electoral system in which voters rank candidates in order of preference on their ballots. The system kicks in if no candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes.

In the absence of a majority winner, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated, lifting the next-preference choices on the ballot. A new tally is conducted to determine whether any candidate has won a majority of adjusted votes. The process is repeated until a candidate wins an outright majority.

Rabb told The Center Square he thinks the pros of ranked choice voting strongly outweigh the cons.

He said there is a lack of public dialogue about the structure of elections and how they can improve, “versus just talking about the problems with parties – whether it’s Democrats or Republicans – and issues on the ballot.”

Rabb said discussing a different process could “very well create a level of interest and engagement that addresses the things that I think imperil our democracy and civic engagement.”

In Philadelphia, where eight out of 10 voters are Democrats, Rabb said over seven out of 10 did not show up to vote in the recent primary to elect its next mayor.

While there was not enough support for the Republican candidate to win, it wasn’t a done deal, he said. There were over a half dozen Democrats running, “but the vast majority of folks in Philly didn’t come out to vote.”

The issue is not bipartisan – in general, Democrats lean in favor of RCV and Republicans oppose it.

Proponents say RCV allows candidates to be elected with broader support. They also claim it discourages polarized candidates from playing to their base and that it deters negative campaigning. Other pros they cite include giving voters more choices, and that it saves time, money, and resources by not requiring separate runoff elections.

In contrast, critic claim the system is complex and confusing – and when voters are confused, they run the risk of incorrectly completed ballots being invalidated, or becoming disengaged from the process entirely. They also argue that RCV decreases voter turnout and increases costs and tabulation time.

Additionally, they say while the process theoretically encourages positive campaigning and produces candidates with broad support, in practice it enables candidates with only marginal support to prevail.

In response to the criticisms, Rabb says, “If you can play the lottery and select a number of choices to get the ticket you want,” you can fill out a ballot with multiple choices.

He said there are certain elements of what we do now that are not necessarily easy to understand, but we need to invest in voter literacy.

The use of RCV, Rabb said, would better gauge how voters feel on issues by comparing their second and third preference candidates’ platforms and “create a standard of accountability that we can directly relate to the demographics of the folks who got them to the finish line.”

“That gives us a lot of data that helps every sector of society in ways that do not exist right now. And that’s really good for democracy, it’s good for campaigning, and it informs good policies,” added.

As The Center Square recently reported, Rabb is also drafting legislation that would institute its use in municipal elections, and the Forward Party – which has included Pennsylvania as one of the battleground states it will focus on making inroads into – is also advocating its use.

Ranked choice voting is currently prohibited in five states – 17 have adopted it on either the state or local level.

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