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A person drops off a vote-by-mail ballot at a dropbox in Pioneer Square during primary voting on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane)
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 06 June 2024

grace ramsey introNational ranked-choice voting expert Grace Ramsey.It may seem daunting at first, but as national ranked-choice voting expert Grace Ramsey explains, it’s an intuitive process we often use in other areas of our lives. And ranked-choice voting, she says, has the potential to shake up previous systems of influence and better empower voters to draw attention to issues – while doing away with the idea that a voter is ever throwing away a vote on an unlikely candidate whom they strongly support.

Ramsey has worked in voter education about ranked-choice voting for more than a decade, and has worked in communities and states that are introducing ranked-choice voting for the first time – places like Alaska, Maine, San Francisco, New York City and Minneapolis, to name a few. She took a break from working with the city on its voter outreach to speak with The Skanner. Interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

How does ranked-choice voting benefit voters?

I live in Washington, D.C., where I don’t have ranked-choice voting. And I see really crowded fields in our elections. There’s a lot of people with ideas for what we want to do in our city and how we want to change things. When I go to vote and there’s that long list, I am overwhelmed sometimes with the fact that I can only say, I have to pick whichever one’s best. That doesn’t always mean 100% in line with my issues, it means I want my voice to be heard and I don’t want to waste my vote.

With ranked-choice voting, that idea of wasting your vote is gone.

Because even if the candidate you like best can’t win, if they just don’t have enough support, those back-up choices you have by ranking a second, third and so on choice, mean you still get to have a voice and you still get to have a say.

So in Portland we’ll have six choices, so you can say ‘This candidate is my favorite, if I can’t have this candidate, this one’s my next choice,’ and so on. It can make a lot of difference to voters.

How does this benefit BIPOC voters?

The way I see it is one, oftentimes communities can be kind of stuck in geographic areas at times and ranked-choice voting kind of breaks that down so it’s not (the case that) one neighborhood in a part of the city that’s running the show. I found that in Minneapolis, especially in citywide races. In Minneapolis, the southwest side of the city tends to be older, Whiter and wealthier, and with an August primary followed by a November general election, often southwest would decide who got in that general election. With ranked-choice voting, we saw candidates have to pay attention to the north side, have to pay attention to the northeast side, to the south side. It’s not that they completely ignored those before but they weren’t as much of a source of being players in what was going to happen.

When we talk about the approach to city council here, voters can really band together and be a force.

Their voice needs to be heard, and with that 25%-plus-one (of the vote) that a candidate needs to win a seat in city council, I think that’s an opportunity for communities to really say ‘Hey, these are our needs. If you’re not going to be responsive to them in this campaign process, we have a lot of choices, and we will use our power to support folks who represent our views and our values.’

What changes do you observe once an area has implemented ranked-choice?

Every location is so unique. What I found is a lot of the places that are exploring this are ones where our sort of traditional system works really well when there are limited choices. If there are two candidates, our existing system works great. But I’ve found that what a lot of these places have in common is there are more voices than just two. There are more people stepping forward. And so people want more choice. But they don’t want those choices to then make them have to do political calculus, right? I’ve found that these systems work really well in those places, and it seems like Portland is pretty in line with that in terms of a lot of folks stepping forward with a vision for their community. 

How does this benefit the candidates?

For candidates, you think about voters differently. I know candidates who, in a traditional election when they go out to knock on doors, if they see the yard sign for a candidate that’s running in their race, they’ll never go and knock on that door because that voter already made their choice and why would they waste their time? With ranked-choice voting, you do want to go and knock on the door and you want to say, ‘Oh, you support this candidate? Great! We’re aligned on these three issues, we’re not aligned on these two issues, but I really think I would be a good second choice for you if you’re supporting that candidate.’ And how different of a conversation is that?

Have you run into logistical issues or confusion when it comes time for voting?

There’s always that fear. I have found everywhere I’ve worked, voters step up to the plate and they find this process pretty intuitive. That’s largely because the thought process itself is actually something we do all the time. People use this example a lot: If I go to the grocery store and I want a pint of ice cream, and they don’t have Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food, I’ll be upset, but I’m still going to get ice cream because I want ice cream – but my second-favorite Ben & Jerry’s flavor.

When we’re doing voter education, our job is to take that knowledge people already have in their lived experience and just apply it to a new situation. 

Can you break down how ranked-choice votes are counted?

If we’re electing one person, like mayor or auditor, voters rank their preferences and to count the votes, we start by only looking at voters’ first choices. So those backups don’t mean anything at first. If a candidate has more than half of the votes, they win. So you need at least half the votes to win because only one candidate can do that.

Ranked-choice voting comes into it if no one has more than half of the votes.

Then we’d eliminate the candidate with the fewest votes. The voters who selected that candidate as their first choice would instantly have their vote go to their next choice, and then we would ask the same questions: Does anyone have more than half of the vote? And we’d repeat that process going until someone has more than half of the votes.

For city council it’s a little different, because we’re electing more than one person. The number of votes you need to win depends on how many people we’re electing. With one winner, you need more than half of the votes because only one person can get more than half. With three winners, you need more than a quarter of the votes, because only three people can do that. 

Do you think voters are more comfortable casting that first-choice vote for a less-known candidate knowing that their fallbacks are going to be considered?

One hundred percent. I think that’s a major change, and for those candidates who – how many times have you heard ‘Why is this person even in the race? They have no chance. They’re just going to pull votes from this person.’ With ranked-choice voting, that’s not happening anymore. And so one thing I’ve been excited to see is that it eliminates that “wait your turn” for candidates, and it allows people to step up. It really does.

So much is changing in the world and so quickly, and I think people are really starting to organize and build their power in community. But it is linked, I think. So there are these factors here of allowing people to step up and run without it being this zero-sum game where if one candidate does well, it harms another. In this situation, it may be a first-time candidate, it may be a young person, they can step forward, give their vision for the city, and the voters who respond to it can vote for them and maybe they don’t do huge numbers, but it is a good indicator of what people care about, and those people are not throwing away their vote by taking a chance.

I think of (city council candidate) Phillippe Cunningham in Minneapolis, Ward 4, who unseated an incumbent who had been in office for quite a while. There were three candidates in the race, and he and the other candidate who were younger and both people of color, banded together and said ‘We need a change in Ward 4, we feel like it’s not as in touch with what’s going on as it used to be,’ and Philippe won largely due to ranked-choice voting. He is also a younger trans man who just put themselves out there to really give a vision for the city that is forward-thinking and really progressive. I think that campaign was really interesting in how he engaged with the system, but how the community really got to make a decision about what their priorities were.

There are a lot of stories like that of people who, under the old system, may have been overlooked or may not have had the favor of a lot of the people who can kind of shine light on certain candidates. But when you see they really have power in the community, that’s where I think it’s amazing.


For more information about the city’s use of ranked-choice, and for examples of how the next ballot will look, visit portland.gov/vote/ranked-choice-voting

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