With three serious gubernatorial candidates on the ballot in November and the theoretical possibility of a new governor elected with 34% of the vote, Oregon might consider an election tool that recently got a lot of attention in Alaska and seems ripe for consideration here: ranked choice voting.
The probability – at least, if polling so far is anywhere near accurate – is that none of the candidates for Oregon governor will reach 50% of the total vote. If so, the winner will be whoever pulls in the strongest plurality.
But would happen in the case of ranked voting?
This is a different kind of election approach, related to but different from the top-two approach used widely in Washington and California. In ranked choice, a voter first marks their preferred choice for an office, but then – depending on how many candidates are on the ballot – can also choose a second-place preference if the first falls short, and maybe a third or fourth as well. These alternative choices come into play whenever no candidate receives at least 50% of the vote or a majority.
That’s how it worked in the recent election in Alaska. In the nationally watched special election race for the U.S. House (Alaska has only one seat), three well-known? candidates were competing: Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich and Democrat Mary Peltola. The first stage involved the counting of top-choice votes, and if one of them had reached 50%, that would have marked a win. Instead, after the votes were counted, all three fell short, Peltola came in first, Palin second and Begich third. Begich was dropped from consideration, and the second-place choice votes from his contingent were distributed and counted. Some of his voters opted for no one, but the others were split between Peltola and Palin. Peltola got just enough of them to prevail.
Other places around the country have work with ranked choice, notably the state of Maine.
This makes me wonder what would happen in Oregon’s three-cornered governor race if such a system were in place. It could mean a governor with voter support from more than half of the electorate.
Oregon doesn’t have this system on a statewide level, but the state could be moving slowly toward ranked choice voting down the road.
Ranked choice is a factor in the proposal for a change in Portland city’s form of government. Oregon Capital Chronicle columnist Tim Nesbitt recently wrote, “I was surprised to learn that the commission thinks its most popular reform will be the shift to ranked choice voting in city elections, where voters get to vote for more than one candidate in order of preference. Apparently, that sounds cool to Portlanders.”
As he also noted, though, that the Portland proposal would be a much looser system that wouldn’t necessarily require 50% to win, and might not be well understood by Portlanders.
A closer fit to the normal ranked voting approach can be found in Benton County.
There, a group of activists including state Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, persuaded voters in 2016 to pass Measure 2-100 (on a 54.2% to 44.8% vote) which provided for a ranked voting plan, on a limited basis: As it was structured, only county commissioners would be elected under it, and it would be used only in general elections. The measure went into effect in 2020.
It hasn’t gotten a full test yet. In 2020, voters were able to make first and second choices for the two commission seats on the ballot, but in both cases the Democratic candidates won on the first round with more than half the vote (Xan Augerot with 58.7% and Nancy Wyse with 63.6%), so no second round was needed.
And this year, only two candidates, a Democrat and a Republican, are competing for the one open commission seat, so voters won’t even need to make a second choice.
Ranked choice voting may not have gotten much of a workout yet, but that could change.
It’s gotten some serious promotion at the Oregon Legislature. In the 2021 session, Senate Bill 791, which “establishes ranked-choice voting for all nonpartisan statewide and local government offices, and for (the) winner of (a) nomination by major political parties for federal and state political offices, beginning after January 1, 2023,” was backed by Sens. Senators Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, and Rayfield. It fell short of passage, dying in committee, but had a substantial hearing.
Oregon likely hasn’t heard the last of ranked voting. Especially with one of its most veteran backers, Rayfield, now in the House speakership. Especially with this year’s gubernatorial election providing such a compelling case study.
This article originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle. (photo: Ron Cooprt/Oregon Capital Chronicle)