Is ranked-choice voting the next election reform for Michigan?

By: - February 19, 2019 3:36 pm
Voting station

Ralph Freso, Getty Images

Another big change could be coming for elections in Michigan — if the measure can get on the ballot.

In 2018, Michigan voters approved sweeping reforms to Michigan’s elections with two ballot questions. Proposal 2 created an independent redistricting commission and Proposal 3 reinstated straight-ticket voting, implemented same-day voter registration and added no-reason absentee voting.

A protestor demonstrates during a Dec. 12, 2018, rally in the Capitol | Ken Coleman

Now last year’s Libertarian gubernatorial nominee, Bill Gelineau, is planning a ballot drive to bring ranked-choice voting to the state’s elections.

Under a ranked-choice voting (RCV) system — sometimes known as instant runoff —  voters select multiple candidates, in order of preference, for each office. Every candidate requires at least 50 percent of the votes to win an election under the system.

If at least half of voters rank a candidate their first choice, that candidate wins the election. If no candidate reaches the necessary threshold, however, then the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated and their votes are redistributed to the candidate marked as each of those voters’ second choice.

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That process continues until a candidate has at least fifty percent of the vote.

Maine voters approved RCV in 2016, and it’s already made a difference in a key 2018 election. GOP U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin was leading in the first-round count. But his Democratic opponent, Jared Golden, ultimately won the seat in the final count under the new voting system, helping the Democrats take control of the U.S. House.

One Michigan city, Ferndale, has already voted overwhelmingly to use ranked choice voting in mayoral and city council elections. More than 14 years after the move was approved by voters, however, it has not yet been implemented. That’s because election equipment doesn’t support that type of ballot and the state Bureau of Elections has questioned the constitutionality of such a form of voting.

U.S. Rep. Jared Golden

That setback likely wouldn’t apply to Gelineau’s proposed measure, however, since it would amend the state’s Constitution.

But just getting the measure on the Michigan ballot in the first place will be more difficult than in the past.

In December, now-former Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill could whittle down how many initiatives go before voters — which some critics have noted could be related to the success of the voting rights measures last year.

Libertarian nominee

When Gelineau was preparing his 2018 campaign for governor, he registered the domain name with the intentions of making it his campaign’s website.

If you visited that website during the election, however, you would be forwarded to a different page that was set up for his campaign:

Bill Gelineau

“As soon as I selected it, I said, ‘You know, if we’re really going to make this what we want it to be in the end, we’re going to need to do some things that are revolutionary. So let’s not waste on a simple political hack website,’” Gelineau said. “Conceptually, it’s one of the things we’re trying to accomplish.”

That goal — of bringing people together and ending the divisive nature of our current political discourse — is where Gelineau says ranked choice voting comes in.

Hugh McNichol IV is founder of the Lansing chapter of Represent.Us, which seeks to pass reforms at the state level across the country to “stop political bribery, end secret money, and fix our broken elections.”

McNichol is on board with RCV and says that changing the way we vote could directly impact the way candidates campaign.

He brought up the example of knocking doors and encountering a house with a yard sign for a different candidate than the one you were campaigning for.

“Under our traditional system, you would just go to the next house and ignore that person,” McNichol said. “But under a ranked-choice voting system, you’re incentivized to go that person’s house and say, ‘Hey, I see you like this candidate the most. I agree with this candidate on these issues; please consider me for your second choice.’ That totally changes the dynamic compared to what we’ve got right now.”

Hugh McNichol IV | Twitter

Gelineau said Democrats use President Donald Trump to drive their message, while Republicans use 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in their attack ads. In Michigan, GOP gubernatorial nominee Bill Schuette frequently compared his 2018 Democratic opponent, now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, to former Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

But under a ranked-choice voting system, candidates are “always cognizant of the fact that they have to think about where we agree as opposed to where we disagree,” Gelineau said. “That’s really the point … to move to an issues-based discussion, as opposed to scary ghostly figures floating in the back of an ad.”

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat elected last year, said that she does not comment on ballot initiatives, since her office oversees the election and is responsible for implementing them. But she noted that she “certainly welcomes any conversations about additional reforms that we can engage in to modernize our elections.”

No more ‘wasted’ votes

Gelineau is the Michigan Libertarian Party’s former chair. He served during the 2016 cycle in which presidential nominee Gary Johnson received enough votes to qualify the Libertarians as a major party in Michigan for the 2018 cycle.

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However, the party lost that status for the 2020 cycle, as Gelineau didn’t garner enough votes last year as the 2018 gubernatorial nominee.

Under our current system, third-party candidates are often viewed as unrealistic and labeled spoiler candidates. Not surprisingly, that’s something Gelineau pushes back on, although he recognizes it’s a prevalent perspective.

“It’s not their election — it’s our election; they don’t have a right to the votes,” he said.

That, too, would be addressed under RCV, Gelineau said, because voters could mark a third-party candidate as their first choice. Then, if that candidate was eliminated, the vote would then go to their second choice — who could, quite possibly, be one of the major-party candidates.

That’s what happened in the Maine congressional election last year.

“If you got to a point where you didn’t have to feel like your vote was ‘wasted’ … there’d be a lot more legitimacy,” Gelineau said.

Gelineau said that he views himself as the likely frontrunner to lead a ballot drive. He is currently in the process of “organizing some of these cells of people … to eventually be able to put an effort together.

“I am very passionate about this, if you haven’t figured that out by now,” Gelineau said. “These things don’t just happen. They take a lot of organization and a lot of commitment. I do believe that I’m emerging as that person who is probably more likely to lead a battle like that and would have some credibility having been someone in the public eye.”

New law, new problems

But there are obstacles.

Snyder, the former GOP governor, surprised many by approving a Lame Duck bill mandating that no more than 15 percent of a petition’s signatures come from any one congressional district. That law is now Public Act 608 of 2018.

When paired with last year’s record-breaking voter turnout in Michigan, it significantly raises the bar for getting issues before voters. RCV advocates will need to collect a minimum of 425,059 signatures to qualify for the 2020 ballot, which traditionally comes at a significant expense.

“I think that’s problematic. It has a racial component to it,” Gelineau said of the new law, echoing an argument lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union made in a recent letter to Attorney General Dana Nessel.

“That cap is a problem,” he added. “If they set reasonable minimum thresholds to say that, you know, you need to get a minimum of 2 percent of 3 percent from each congressional district, that would not be a terrible thing in my book.”

Jocelyn Benson

The law could potentially be overturned in court before 2020. Benson has requested a legal opinion from Nessel on the matter, saying she is “deeply concerned that the new restrictions” in PA 608 could violate “constitutional rights by adding new burdens and restrictions on the process.”

Nessel said that “restricting the right of Michiganders to participate in the political process is a serious subject matter.” She hasn’t issued her legal opinion yet, but said it is a top priority as the 2020 election cycle is already underway.

Not surprisingly, bill sponsor state Rep. James Lower (R-Cedar Lake) slammed the move, and argued “this is a forgone conclusion worked out in secret among politicians and party leaders.”

2020 or 2022?

Regardless of whether the law remains intact or not, Gelineau said he remains interested in starting the process for an RCV measure, using the blueprint of the other successful ballot drive in 2018, Proposal 1 legalizing recreational marijuana.

Getty Images

Just like with that measure, there are many options for ranked-choice voting that organizers could pursue. And while some, like Gelineau, say that Proposal 1 didn’t go far enough, he acknowledged that may have been key to its passage.

“What we accomplished with Proposal 1 is a perfect example of how one builds a coalition of people. And the ‘this is the one way we’re doing this’ mentality is a big concern that I have about what’s going on in talking about ranked-choice voting right now,” Gelineau said.

McNichol said that he has seen a spike in interest in RCV recently. In the past, only one or two people in a group of 20 would know about the system, he said. Now at least half of each group does.

“I think the public is a lot more willing to listen to these things because of the frustration they have with the political system,” Gelineau said.

The Represent.Us Lansing chapter plans to have polling done on the issue to help determine whether to put the initiative on the ballot in 2020 or 2022.

Of course, not everybody supports ranked choice voting. Critics argue that voters are more likely to spoil their ballots or that results will end up being less accurate.

Ruth Johnson

McNichol addressed these concerns, saying that the same machines Michigan has to tabulate results would continue to be used. He also said that RCV has increased voter turnout when implemented, like in Santa Fe, N.M.

Ruth Johnson was secretary of state for eight years before being term-limited in 2019. She’s now a GOP state senator representing Holly.

Johnson said that she would have to see the language for RCV before deciding whether to support the measure.

“I’d have to look into it much more,” she said. “I’ve heard of it, but I really don’t know.”

McNichol says that conversations with lawmakers don’t necessarily reflect where voters are at on an issue.

“I can tell you that a conversation with an elected official about ranked-choice voting is completely different than a conversation with a voter about ranked-choice voting,” McNichol said. “Elected officials are, I would say, much more reluctant to accept this.”

Supporters remain optimistic about the prospects of a ranked choice voting ballot initiative.

“Are there enough people out there who believe in democracy that would be willing to forgo what may be the end of the two-party system to say we can have a better way of running our government?” Gelineau said. “I really think it’s possible.”

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Andrew Roth
Andrew Roth

Andrew Roth is a former reporting intern with the Michigan Advance. He has been covering Michigan policy and politics for three years across a number of publications and studies journalism at Michigan State University.