Could Ranked-Choice Voting Cure Wisconsin’s Polarized Politics?

Good, better, best

Are you in an election rut? 

It starts with a primary that draws only a fraction of each party’s voters, mostly ideological loyalists. The candidate of your choice comes in second in a three-way race, while the winner moves on to the general election with perhaps 40% of the primary vote.

If you live in a district dominated by one of the two major parties, that primary might effectively decide the election. The other party may not even nominate a candidate, and the person who won 40% of a minority of one party’s voters winds up in the state Legislature.

But maybe it’s a slightly more competitive race, say for Congress. Then you have a choice of: (A) your party’s candidate, who you didn’t support and who wasn’t backed by a majority of your party’s voters; (B) the other major party’s candidate, whose views are the opposite of yours on almost all key issues; and (C) some minor-party or independent candidates whose ideas might appeal to you – but whom you’re afraid to vote for, because the pundits and your friends say they could take votes away from your party’s candidate and throw the election to the other major party’s candidate, who you really, really don’t want to win.

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So you reluctantly vote for your party’s candidate anyway. Or perhaps you don’t vote at all. Either way, you grumble about your lack of real choices and wonder why we don’t have a better way to pick our elected representatives.

Democracy Found says it has a better way. The Wisconsin organization, founded by Milwaukee-area business leaders Katherine Gehl and Austin Ramirez, advocates ranked-choice voting for this state’s U.S. House and Senate elections. Some state legislators have introduced bills that would apply the concept to other races as well.

In ranked-choice voting, you don’t just vote for one candidate. Instead, you rank the candidates as your first choice, second choice, etc. If one candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes, that person wins. If no candidate commands a majority, the one with the fewest votes is eliminated and the second-choice votes of that candidate’s supporters are added to other candidates’ totals. This process continues until someone wins more than 50% of the vote.

Ranked-choice voting was invented in the 19th century. It’s been used to elect Australian and Irish parliament members for about 100 years. But until recently, many Americans knew it only as the way that Hollywood insiders pick Oscar winners. 

Three Ways Ranked-Choice Voting Could Play Out in Wisconsin  

ONE BILL, sponsored by Rep. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) and retiring Sen. Mark Miller (D-Monona), would mandate RCV for all local, state and federal elections. That would eliminate nonpartisan primaries, because ranking all candidates would allow an “instant runoff” in nonpartisan general elections. For partisan offices, including the presidency, both primaries and general elections would use RCV.   

A SECOND BILL, sponsored by Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) and Sen. Jeff Smith (D-Eau Claire), would allow local governments to use RCV for their nonpartisan elections if they chose. That would eliminate primaries for those offices, although it wouldn’t affect nonpartisan state races for judges and superintendent of public instruction.

WISCONSIN-BASED Democracy Found advocates “Final Five Voting,” in which all U.S. House and Senate candidates would compete in nonpartisan primaries. The five candidates with the most votes, regardless of party, would advance to a general election that uses RCV. Rep. Daniel Riemer (D-Milwaukee) and Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) say they plan to introduce a bill with these provisions next year.

In this country, Wisconsin was one of the first states to adopt ranked-choice voting, in 1911 — but it didn’t last long. It applied to partisan primaries only, as part of the state law that established primaries to replace party caucuses for nominating candidates.

Ranked-choice voting was one of the “good government” reforms championed by the Progressive wing of the state’s Republican Party, led by then-Sen. Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, says Mordecai Lee, a UW-Milwaukee professor emeritus.

But Progressives also thought it would give them an advantage over the party’s more conservative Stalwart wing in contests where more than one Progressive was on the ballot, Lee says. Stalwarts agreed that RCV aided the Progressives, which was why the system only lasted for four years, he adds.

“When Stalwarts won the 1914 elections, they promptly repealed the law during the 1915 session of the Legislature,” Lee wrote in a 2018 guest column in the Journal Sentinel. Lee says he tried unsuccessfully to revive RCV as a Democratic state legislator in the 1970s and 1980s.

Nationally, interest in ranked-choice voting perked up after the 1912 election, when former President Teddy Roosevelt’s third-party comeback bid against his Republican successor, William Howard Taft, split the GOP vote and handed the White House to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. That “spoiler effect” still haunts third-party candidates.

“With ranked-choice voting, you’re not wasting your vote” for a long-shot candidate, and those candidates “are not treated as spoilers,” says Lee Drutman, author of Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America

Yet RCV remained rare in the United States, used mainly for local elections. That changed in 2018, when Maine voters first used RCV in state primaries and congressional elections. In November, they will use it for the first time in a presidential election. 

It’s no coincidence that Maine went first. Polarizing Republican Paul LePage won two terms as governor, in 2010 and 2014, without a majority either time. Although term limits prevented LePage from running again, his record of conflict and gridlock drove voters to approve RCV in a 2016 referendum – and to reaffirm it through a 2018 “people’s veto” referendum after judicial and legislative decisions threatened to negate the first referendum. 

Pointing to the 2016 election of President Donald Trump, Wisconsin state Sen. Jeff Smith (D-Eau Claire) asks, “Should we actually be placing people in power who don’t get more than 50% of the vote? If that doesn’t bother people, then I don’t know why we call this democracy anymore.” He’s sponsoring a bill to let this state’s local governments choose whether to use RCV for nonpartisan elections.

Another potential RCV benefit is that candidates have less incentive to attack each other, because they want to attract second-choice votes from their opponents’ supporters, says Barry Burden, professor of political science at UW-Madison. 

In a 2018 ranked-choice election, Burden notes, two San Francisco mayoral candidates endorsed each other, which he cites as a sign of civil campaigning. Others, including the San Francisco Chronicle, accused the Asian American and gay candidates of “gaming the system” to block front-runner London Breed, who won anyway, becoming the city’s first black female mayor. 

The most common criticism of RCV is that it’s more complicated than the current system and might confuse voters. Advocates say this is a risk with any election change, and voters will need to be educated on how it works.  

Also, New York City Council members of color unsuccessfully opposed a 2019 referendum to use RCV in city primaries, starting in 2021. They feared the system could diminish their constituents’ influence, although one study suggests RCV actually increased diversity among San Francisco’s elected officials.

Because RCV is complicated and hasn’t been studied much, “there’s lots of concerns” about how it would work on a wider scale, says Julia Azari, associate professor of political science at Marquette University. “These kinds of reforms can have unintended consequences.”

Although RCV became a partisan issue in Maine, and advocates expect one or both parties eventually may see it as a threat to their power, Gehl and Ramirez say their effort is nonpartisan. Their supporters include Rep. Daniel Riemer (D-Milwaukee) and Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), who plan to introduce the Democracy Found plan as a bipartisan bill next year. 

“This is all about effective governance,” says Ramirez, the CEO of Husco International in Waukesha. Business leaders prefer a pragmatic problem-solving approach and are frustrated by partisan gridlock in Washington, he says.

“Party primaries push both sides to the right and to the left,” says Gehl, the former CEO of Gehl Foods in Germantown. The primary becomes “the eye of the needle through which no problem-solving politician can pass,” she says.

Gehl’s frustration with partisanship led her and economist Michael Porter to write The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy, a new book that decries the current system as a noncompetitive duopoly. She proposes electing Congress through “Final Five Voting,” in which nonpartisan primaries narrow the field to five candidates, with RCV in the general election. 

Democracy Found would start with Congress, because Wisconsin voters of both parties agree that institution is broken by partisan dysfunction, say Gehl, Ramirez and Riemer. By contrast, Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) says she and Smith propose ranked-choice voting as a local option because they believe that stands the best chance of passage in the Legislature. Rep. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) concedes a gradual approach might work better than his bill to require ranked-choice voting in all local, state and federal elections.

While Gehl also supports ending gerrymandering and limiting money in politics, she sees the combination of Final Five Voting and RCV as the most effective and achievable reform.

Under the current system, “We have messy, hard (elections) and bad results,” Gehl says. “I believe with Final Five Voting, we will have messy, hard and good results.” 

Where is RCV used?  

✓ State primaries and all congressional elections in Maine – and, starting in November, presidential elections as well.

✓ All-mail 2020 Democratic presidential primaries in Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas and Wyoming, and early voting in the 2020 Nevada Democratic caucus.

✓ Military and overseas mail-in voting in some runoff elections in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina. 

✓ A smattering of local elections, including those in Minneapolis, St. Paul, San Francisco and, starting in 2021, New York City.

✓ Various elections in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Fiji, Malta and Papua New Guinea, including races for the Australian and Irish parliaments and the Irish presidency.


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s August issue

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Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included profiles of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Milwaukee Ald. Bob Donovan, as well as a feature about the perennial power struggles of Milwaukee County officials. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.