Riddle me this: What’s hated by Republicans in Alaska, feared by Democrats in Nevada, loved by Australians and may be coming to Wyoming?
If you said “ranked-choice voting,” go to the head of the class. Knowing the correct answer means you may be a hardline Wyoming Republican who’s tired of Democrats “meddling” in your elections, or one of the rest of us who are weary of the GOP’s hysterical rants about banning “crossover voting.” Whatever the case, you’re likely ready for meaningful election reform.
Before we explain what RCV is and why a legislative committee is drafting two bills to introduce it here, let’s look at how Wyoming elections are conducted now.
The Equality State has a closed primary, plurality system. Only voters who register as either Democrats or Republicans may vote in their respective party’s primary; unaffiliated voters can’t participate. Each party’s primary is winner-take-all, but the victor doesn’t need a majority of the votes cast.
An alternative method is ranked-choice voting with open primaries. In that configuration, candidates from any party can run and every eligible registered voter — Republicans, Democrats, independents and those affiliated with smaller parties — may vote. A specified number of candidates advance to the general election.
In RCV, voters rank all candidates for a given office — first choice, second choice, etc. The initial vote tally only includes voters’ top choice.
If a candidate wins a majority of votes, he or she is elected. If not, the candidate with the fewest number of votes is eliminated. Then officials tabulate the second choices of voters who ranked the dropped candidate first. The process is repeated until one candidate wins over 50%.
RCV has been used all over the world, including in Australian elections for more than a century, but it’s a relatively new concept in the U.S. More than 10 million voting-age citizens live in a city or state that has already implemented or will use the system in upcoming elections. In 2016, Maine adopted RCV for all federal, state and legislative elections, and Alaska did the same in 2020.
A couple RCV bills have been filed in the Wyoming Legislature, but the concept wasn’t seriously considered until last month. The Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee voted to draft two bills — one that would switch to RCV for all federal, state and legislative elections, and another to allow municipalities to use it for local races.
In any discussion of RCV, it’s important to examine why many Wyoming voters are dissatisfied with the current system.
Republicans have grown increasingly upset about Democrats changing their party affiliation to the GOP. Most political parties welcome new members, but Wyoming Republican Party officials claim the law that allows “crossover” voting — even at the polls on Election Day — lets Dems meddle in their affairs. They want voters to stay in their own lane.
Things reached a boiling point in the 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary when then-State Treasurer Mark Gordon, who was seen as a moderate by some of his party’s chapter-and-verse true believers, won the nomination. The top two self-described conservatives, Foster Friess and Harriet Hageman, split the vote and lost, even though Gordon only received one-third of the total. He cruised to a landslide victory over Democrat Mary Throne in the general election.
The GOP blamed Democrats who changed parties to keep Friess and Hageman from winning, even though not enough switched to have such a sweeping impact. Republicans have made a crossover voting ban a top priority, and this year got the Senate to pass the bill before the House killed it.
Republicans had a Plan B: require a run-off primary between the top two vote-getters if no candidate gets more than 50%. The extreme-right faction of the party feared that Hageman, former President Donald Trump’s pick to defeat U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney after her impeachment vote, might again split the vote with a candidate of similar stripes, opening the door for Cheney to cobble together a plurality from Democrats and “mainstream” Republicans and win without a majority.
A Senate run-off bill failed by only two votes in 2021, so the idea already had some traction. However, a House bill was filed but never considered this year, and a constitutional amendment was also a dud.
Cost is a chief concern. A run-off election is estimated at $1.5 million, all at the expense of Wyoming taxpayers, not the two political parties. To make sure there is enough time to squeeze in a run-off election, the primary would need to be held earlier. There’s also voter fatigue — do people really want to go to the polls three times the same year?
The recent primary election showed Republican power-brokers they had no reason to worry. Yes, many Democrats crossed over for Cheney, but Hageman captured nearly two-thirds of the total votes. Howls from the far right for crossover voting bans and run-off elections should turn into murmurs.
But for Wyoming residents who still believe primary winners should be elected by a majority, not just a plurality, this is the perfect time for the state to consider RCV.
Why? Because the system, which is often called an “instant run-off,” requires just one trip to the polls in the primary. There’s no need for an expensive run-off to determine which candidates advance to the general election.
In a state where Republicans outnumber Democrats more than 4-to-1, there’s a high likelihood two or more GOP candidates would be squaring off in the November general election. But as the recent Alaska special election demonstrated, it’s still possible for a Democrat to win in deep-red states.
Mary Peltola, a moderate Democrat, defeated Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich. When the latter candidate was eliminated and second choices came into play, Peltola ended up with a three-point victory.
I knew Palin and her supporters would squawk. Sure enough, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Oklahoma) blasted Alaska’s new RCV system as “a scam to rig elections.”
“Sixty percent of Alaska voters voted for a Republican, but thanks to a convoluted process and ballot exhaustion — which disenfranchises voters — a Democrat ‘won,’” Cotton tweeted.
Palin, of course, railed against “this new crazy, convoluted, confusing ranked-choice voting system” she blames for losing. I’m sure the ex-governor’s decision to abandon her office mid-term years ago had nothing to do with the outcome.
Once upon a time, not long ago, politicians in all parties who lost called their opponents to congratulate them. Now, thanks to Trump’s non-stop, fact-free whining about how the 2020 election was stolen, many Republicans will never admit defeat. If they win an election it’s always fair; lose and it’s forever rigged.
But Republicans haven’t cornered the anti-RCV market. In Nevada, Democrats are the chief opponents of a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November. Democrats, including many progressives, call RCV potentially “confusing” and “exclusionary.”
Neither criticism rings true. RCV is an appropriate response to Wyoming Republicans’ insistence that the current system is rigged against them. The change provides all the advantages of a run-off at only a fraction of the cost.
Ranked-choice voting is not too complicated for Wyoming voters to understand. It would open up the process by allowing all eligible voters a chance to not only participate, but still have a voice in the outcome if their first choice loses.
Let’s give it a chance. At a minimum, the committee’s bill to make it an option in municipal elections is worth testing for a limited time. If we kick the tires and take it for a spin, it might be a smooth ride into our future.