Sater files ranked-choice voting bill

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Instant runoffs to be discussed by state legislature

If a bill filed by State Sen. David Sater, R-Cassville, passes in this legislative session, no municipal or county candidate for office in Missouri will win any primary election without more than 50 percent of the vote.

Senate Bill 140 aims to implement in 2018 a ranked-choice voting system, where votes for candidates in local office primary elections would be counted in rounds until one candidate receives the simple majority.

Sater said the bill is in its early stages, having been pre-filed and likely going up for discussion during the upcoming session.

"It's not a finished product, so it may change," he said. "I pre-filed it because I would like to get a consensus on it."

The bill says each voter will rank candidates first to last choice when casting a ballot, and election judges shall count the votes in rounds. In any round that ends with three or more candidates with less than 50 percent of the total vote, the candidate with the fewest number of votes is eliminated, and a new round begins. Voters who chose the eliminated candidate as their highest-ranked choice will have their next highest-ranked choice counted.

State Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, said the bill would prevent situations where someone in, for example, a six-man primary, could win with only 20 percent of the total vote.

"I am open to the idea and am sure we'll be talking about it," he said. "We have to weigh the pros and cons. True runoffs are most likely more expensive, unless there are some hidden costs in a ranking system."

Fear of higher cost is a concern for county clerks. Gary Emerson, Lawrence County clerk, said he assumes cost would increase because instead of machines delivering just one result, it may require multiple runs or judges counting ballots.

"It sounds like we'd need some new software or we'd have to go through them manually, and that would take time," he said. "If it costs more, the state should pay for it because the counties have limited resources."

Gary Youngblood, Barry County clerk, said one of his main objections is education for a new system.

"The current system seems to have worked pretty well for the last 100 years, and how will we educate voters, since we don't always read the instructions?" he said. "I see that as very difficult, when you're dealing with voters who are used to voting for one candidate but can now vote for more than one. Mark my words, it will be pretty difficult for some voters to understand."

Sater said he understands the clerks' concerns.

"They are also worried about election judges working extra time because they already work 12- to 14-hour days," he said. "And, it could be more time consuming to count ballots with multiple rounds."

Fitzpatrick said he also worries about people not filling out ballots entirely.

"What you don't want is people not ranking everyone and then no one gets 50 percent," he said. "If you have three candidates and assume one will get 50 percent, but they are all in the 30s, you have to look around and see what has worked in other states. What is most cost-effective and the best resolution?"

In the United States today, ranked-choice voting will be used for all state and congressional elections in Maine beginning in 2018. It is also used to elect city officials in 11 cities, with two more ready to implement the process. Ranked-choice ballots are also used by military and overseas voters in five states and one city.

According to www.fairvote.org, ranked-choice voting promotes majority support, discourages negative campaigning, provides more choices for voters and minimizes strategic voting, among other benefits. Those opposed to ranked-choice voting say it is more costly to have the equipment, can be confusing and requires voters to do more than the average amount of research about less prominent candidates to properly rank them all.

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