COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – An Ohio city was the first in the United States to implement ranked choice voting in 1915. Now, more than a century later, a state lawmaker wants to outlaw the voting system across the state.
Senate Bill 137, introduced in late July by Sen. Theresa Gavarone (R-Bowling Green), would prohibit local and county governments from running elections under ranked-choice voting, a system used in some cities and states, including New York City, Minneapolis, Maine and Alaska. As opposed to the “first-past-the-post” system dominant in most federal and state elections, ranked-choice voting asks voters to rank candidates in order of preference.
Under the “instant run-off” model of ranked-choice voting – most commonly used in single-winner elections – if no candidate achieves more than 50% of the vote, the candidate with the least first-place votes is knocked off the ballot, with each vote for that candidate transferring to whoever ranked second. The run-off continues until one candidate emerges with a simple majority.
SB137 would ban ranked choice voting in primaries and all other elections in Ohio. Any city, village or chartered county – Summit and Cuyahoga – that uses ranked choice voting would be ineligible for state funding until repealing the system. No local government in Ohio uses ranked-choice voting, although University Heights briefly considered the process in June upon recommendation by its charter review commission.
Proponents of ranked-choice voting, which has existed in various iterations since the 1850s, argue it can lead to large increases in voter turnout and minority representation. To Gavarone – and the Republican National Committee at large – ranked choice voting threatens election security, voter turnout and voter confidence in elections.
“There’s been a recent push across the country to try and implement ranked choice voting, and this is really in response to that,” Gavarone said. “I’ve been working hard over the last few years on legislation that’s going to give certainty to voters, get election results sooner, make sure voters have confidence in the results, and ranked-choice voting really undermines all of that.”
Gavarone said the process of ranking and run-offs is confusing for voters and complicates the tabulation process. Voters want to know election results as soon as possible, she said, but changing the electoral system would only delay those results from being certified.
She also pointed to a school board election in Oakland, California, in which the wrong winner was named this past November. The Alameda County Registrar of Voters determined the tally system was not configured to properly account for voters who didn’t select a first-place candidate.
“If it’s difficult for people who work in this field to explain, if it’s so confusing that California messed up a tabulation count and certified the wrong person, then is that something that’s really best for Ohio?” Gavarone said. “I don’t think it is.”
The Republican National Committee has officially denounced the use of ranked-choice voting, arguing, in part, in a resolution that in communities using the system, it “consistently decreased voter participation in those communities and in many cases, the elections have resulted in more discarded votes than counted votes.”
But the body of research into ranked-choice voting does not support those claims, according to Kevin Kosar, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who studies American politics and election reform.
“Australia has been using it for 100 years. People aren’t walking around in a sea of confusion over there,” Kosar said. “I think Americans are perfectly capable of fully understanding it, we just need to do the voter education aspect.”
A meta-analysis of 15 studies by think tank New America’s Electoral Reform Research Group found that while ranked choice voting proponents’ claims of increased turnout and representation are overblown, the system did not decrease turnout, did not disenfranchise voters and did not persistently confuse the public.
One of the meta-analysis’s main takeaways, and something Kosar emphasized, was that ranked-choice voting is a learnable method. Initial uncertainty in the process can be attributed to bias in favor of the status quo – people are generally resistant to change.
But once ranked choice voting gets underway, the meta-analysis found that in some places, it’s shown to have a moderately positive impact on voter turnout. Part of that, Kosar said, is because ranked-choice voting makes elections “more interesting.”
In single-member districts with a reliably partisan preference, whoever wins in the primary is going to have a “cakewalk” general election, Kosar said.
“With ranked choice voting, you get the possibility of people moving onto the general election who – it’s not going to be clear who’s going to win,” Kosar said. “You’re not gonna have, also, the spoiler issue, of a person saying, ‘Man, I really want to vote for that independent, but independents never win, and so I don’t want to waste my vote.’”
Kosar emphasized while ranked choice voting may be unfamiliar to many American voters, it is hardly new. Australia, for example, has used it since 1918. Despite recent conservative backlash to the reform, more than 20 cities in Republican-dominated Utah also use the system.
Ashland, Ohio, was the first U.S. city to adopt ranked choice voting in 1915, according to the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center. It employed the multi-winner proportional system, common in parliamentary and school board elections where multiple candidates are elected to seats. Other Ohio cities quickly followed suit, including Cleveland, Toledo, Cincinnati and Hamilton.
In the early 1940s, two dozen cities across six states used ranked-choice voting. By 1962, the system was repealed in all but one city.
“All jurisdictions stopped that and repealed it in the 1950s because voters didn’t like it,” Gavarone said.
Proponents of ranked choice voting, including Kyle Herman, executive director of Rank the Vote Ohio, point to increased minority representation in positions of political power as a more accurate cause of the repeal effort.
“The history shows that the reason it was repealed was because corrupt party bosses pushed repeal efforts – with help from racists like the KKK – because they didn’t like that ranked-choice voting allowed for more representation for women and people of color,” Herman said.
Herman said he sees a similar fear of ranked-choice voting now among conservatives wary of losing political influence. But ranked-choice voting is a historically bipartisan voting reform, Kosar said and cited former President Donald Trump’s vocal opposition to the system as inciting the right-wing backlash to it.
Some experts, such as political researchers Jonathan Cervas and Bernard Grofman, suggest that Trump may benefit from ranked choice voting, particularly if another Republican runs as a third-party candidate. Many of those votes would likely transfer to Trump in an instant runoff, especially against a Democratic candidate.
“The bottom line is simple: a priori, there is no reason to believe that [ranked choice voting] has any partisan or ideological bias, even if it might be shown to favor (relative to a simple plurality) one party or another in particular circumstances,” Cervas and Grofman wrote in a 2021 Cambridge University Press article.
Gavarone said since introducing the bill, she’s fielded positive feedback from both sides of the aisle. SB 137 has yet to be referred to committee.
Read SB137 below.