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Imagine you walk into the voting booth to find a different kind of ballot. Instead of being able to vote for just one candidate per race in an election, you get to vote by ranking all of the candidates.  


Your number one vote is for the person you think would be best in the job. Today in elections, that’s all you get to do. If no one gets a majority, the election goes to a runoff — meaning you have to go back to the polls later to cast another ballot in another election for one of the top two vote-getters — even if the candidate you picked in the first election is on the second ballot. This kind of runoff voting is expensive, time-consuming and less representative because runoffs have a much lower turnout (which means a much smaller subset of voters actually picks the winner.)

But imagine tweaking our current voting system so that you don’t have to head back to the polls for a runoff. Instead, you would rank all candidates when you went into the voting booth on election day. You’d still pick your top candidate. But then you’d pick the second-best one – in case your person didn’t win the election. And then you would keep ranking each candidate on the ballot.

In this scenario if no one won with a majority on the first counting of the ballot, election officials would recalculate the results, throwing out the last place finisher and assigning that candidate’s votes to each voter’s number two choice. The process would continue until one candidate in the race wins a majority.

It’s called “ranked choice voting” (RCV), or “instant runoff voting,” and it’s an idea that is sweeping the country as a way to avoid the hassle of how we do runoffs today.  

“The beauty of ranked choice voting is in how simple and powerful it is,” said Andrew Yang, a former Democratic presidential candidate who now heads the Forward Party. “It gives all of us more power at the ballot box, while also improving the incentives of politicians to reject extremism and represent the people better. 

“In South Carolina, RCV could not only save the state money by preventing needless low-turnout runoff elections, but also create a government in Columbia that works together to solve your problems,” Yang told the City Paper. “The current system isn’t delivering those results, but with RCV it will.”

Advantages of this form of instant runoff:

Less expensive. Election officials don’t have to run another whole election, meaning they don’t have to open precincts or hire a huge temporary staff to run voting sites. Instead, voters make their picks in the general election and, thanks to computers, votes are calculated relatively quickly when no one gets a majority on the first count. State officials say a statewide runoff can cost up to $1.5 million. And with more costs for county election commissions, South Carolina taxpayers could save at least $2 million per primary and general election by adopting a new way to vote using the same voting machines.

Easy. Ranked choice voting is currently being done in other states without problems. It has been used for years in countries like Australia — and voters like it because they only have to go to the polls once per election.

More representation. Minority parties tend to push instant runoffs because they give their candidates a better chance. For example, let’s say you really wanted a Libertarian to win. But in the past, you might have voted for a Republican or Democrat because you wanted your vote to count. In ranked choice voting, you could vote for the Libertarian. If no candidate gets a majority in the first count  but the Libertarian isn’t at the bottom, the last place candidate is knocked off. When that candidate’s votes are reassigned, the Libertarian might get enough votes to go over the top and win in the second round of counting.

You can learn more about ranked choice voting from Better Ballot South Carolina, a grassroots group planning a 2 p.m. rally on Jan. 23 at the Statehouse. Yang and state Rep. Jermaine Johnson, D-Richland, are expected to speak.

Andy Brack is editor and publisher of the Charleston City Paper and Statehouse Report.  Have a comment? Send to:

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