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Oklahoma lawmakers weigh restrictions on ranked-choice voting

State Rep. Eric Roberts, R-Oklahoma City, asks State Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax a question during an interim study on ranked choice voting held Sept. 12, 2023 at the Oklahoma State Capitol.
Keaton Ross
Oklahoma Watch
State Rep. Eric Roberts, R-Oklahoma City, asks State Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax a question during an interim study on ranked choice voting held Sept. 12, 2023 at the Oklahoma State Capitol.

From Alaska to New York City, ranked-choice voting has gained traction in a handful of states and dozens of municipalities.

A coalition of voter advocacy groups and some elected officials, including Rep. Mickey Dollens, D-Oklahoma City, and Stillwater mayor, Will Joyce, say the preference-based voting system helps reduce negative campaigning and gives a greater voice to third-party and independent voters. But several Republican lawmakers, concerned about a potential switchover being costly and confusing to voters, remain skeptical.

Five Republican-led states have banned municipalities from using ranked-choice voting in their elections since 2022. Last month the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Virginia-based conservative lobbying group that drafts model legislation, finalized a model proposal to ban ranked-choice voting at the state and municipal levels.

The ranked-choice voting issue isn’t entirely partisan. The Washington, D.C. Democratic Party filed a lawsuit in early August seeking to block a ranked-choice voting ballot measure, arguing the system could disenfranchise low-income and minority voters. Several Democratic officials in Nevada, including the state’s U.S. Senate delegation and leaders of the House and Senate, oppose an upcoming ballot initiative for similar reasons.

Members of the House Elections and Ethics Committee weighed potential policies governing ranked-choice voting, including a municipal-level ban, during an interim study at the state Capitol on Tuesday morning. Interim studies don’t generate official reports or recommendations but are often used to guide future legislation.

Here’s a look at what could be in store in the upcoming legislative session:

How Ranked-choice Voting Works

Instead of selecting a single candidate per race, voters in jurisdictions with ranked-choice voting rank candidates by preference from first to last.

If a single candidate doesn’t win a majority of first-place votes when ballots are first counted, the candidate with the least amount of first-place votes is eliminated and second-place votes from those ballots are distributed to remaining candidates. This process continues until there’s a majority winner.

That process eliminates the need for a runoff election, which Oklahoma uses in primary contests in which a single candidate doesn’t get a majority of votes. That could save the state millions in the coming decades and offset the potential cost of implementing ranked-choice voting, said Cindy Alexander, a volunteer with Rank the Vote Oklahoma.

“It’s safe to assume that a runoff election will cost a million dollars,” Alexander said in an interview before the study. “And the cost is more than just the money. Some people find it inconvenient to go vote ten weeks after they just did so, they may have to make arrangements to get time off work. And sometimes the interest just wanes in those 10 weeks.”

In a presentation to lawmakers, Alexander said ranked-choice voting more accurately reflects the will of the people because a candidate with majority support always wins. She cited the 2002 gubernatorial race, in which former Democratic Gov. Brady Henry narrowly defeated Republican Steve Largent with just 43.6% of the overall vote, as an election in which Republicans could have benefited from ranked-choice voting.

The system also tends to reward elected officials who are solutions-oriented and open to compromise, Alexander said. Three Alaska political scientists penned an article in May outlining positive changes in the state’s legislature after a voter-approved initiative implementing ranked-choice voting took effect last year, including an expedited state budget agreement.

“Candidates will be hoping to be the second choice of a voter if they can’t be the first,” Alexander said. “They don’t want to offend a voter who is a big supporter of another candidate.”

State Elections Chief, Alaska Senator Urge Caution

Four of the five speakers at the study were critical of ranked-choice voting, raising concerns that it’s overly complex or mostly supported by left-leaning organizations.

State Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax said the state’s voting machines aren’t capable of reading ranked-choice ballots and would need to be replaced if the voting system is adopted. He said it would probably take at least a year to send requests for proposals and purchase capable machines, likely at a cost exceeding $10 million.

Additional money would be needed to educate voters and election officials of the changes. When Alaska voters approved a ballot initiative implementing ranked-choice voting, the state Legislature appropriated $1.6 million to launch an education campaign.

“I’ll be honest, I’m confused by ranked-choice voting,” Ziriax told lawmakers. “As you can imagine, if I’m confused, how does the general public respond to it? I would not want to be the one to have to go out and explain it to voters.”

Asked whether the state would be capable of tallying ballots and reporting results on election night under a ranked-choice voting system, Ziriax said probably not.

“That would be my concern,” Ziriax said. “For me personally, one of the things that really helps give voters confidence in elections here in Oklahoma is you may have to stay up until 11 or 12, but in general you know when you go to bed who won the election.”

Mike Shower, a Republican state senator from Alaska, said a growing percentage of ballots have been disqualified since ranked-choice voting was implemented, particularly among low-income and minority residents. In Alaska’s August 2022 special election, ballots from several rural precincts went partially uncounted because of a mailing delay, but the state’s election director said a full tallying would not have changed the final results.

Shower, a self-described conservative who focuses on election policy, added that he believes ranked-choice voting is a ploy to shift Republican-leaning states further to the middle. Scott Walter, president of the right-leaning Capital Research Center, told lawmakers earlier in the study that left-leaning nonprofits are leading the effort to persuade municipalities and states to adopt ranked-choice voting.

“I would implore you to look at ways to prevent this system from coming into Oklahoma while you have the opportunity to do so,” Shower said.

Alexander, the ranked-choice voting advocate, said concerns about the complexity of the system are overblown, citing exit polls from Alaska and growing adoption of the system in university and business settings. About four in five Alaskans who participated in a Patinkin Research Strategies survey described casting a ranked choice ballot in the November 2022 midterms as simple. Nine percent of respondents said the system was very difficult.

Alexander said voter advocacy groups could consider a veto referendum if the Legislature passes restrictions on ranked-choice voting. Organizers would need to collect at least 57,664 signatures over 90 days to reach the ballot.

“That is definitely the playbook that’s circulating,” Alexander said regarding statewide bans of ranked-choice voting. “I would be very concerned that Oklahoma would lose the opportunity to allow better elections and allow the majority of voters to choose who is elected.”

Correction: A previous version of this story referenced Alaska ballots that were rejected in June 2022. This was a statewide mail-in election, not a ranked choice election. 

Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.
Oklahoma Watch
Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.