Ranked choice voting would give the electorate a bigger say in who wins an election. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
Unless there is a big surprise before the election on Tuesday, it’s probable that none of the candidates in the three-way race for Oregon governor will get a majority of the vote. Instead, Democrat Tina Kotek, Republican Christine Drazan and non-affiliated candidate Betsy Johnson will split the vote in such a way that the “winner” of the race will have received more votes against them than for.
Recent polls show both Drazan and Kotek hovering at about 38% support, with Johnson attracting about 14%. That may be a significant amount for a third-party candidate, but in a tight race it really doesn’t take that much for a “spoiler” to gum up the gears and throw an election to one candidate or another.
In 2010, John Kitzhaber won his third term as governor with 49% of the vote. Two years before that Jeff Merkley unseated Gordon Smith as U.S. senator with 49% of the vote. And in 1990, Barbara Roberts became the first female governor of Oregon with just 46% of the vote. In each of these races, conservative third- and even fourth-party candidates got just enough of the vote to tip the races in the Democrats favor.
A recent survey conducted by the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center found that only one-third of Oregonians think that the process for electing the governor and state legislators should stay the same. Many said that the current system is obsolete, and that in a world where third- and fourth-party candidates are entering races there needs to be a way to determine a winner that the majority of people support.
Fortunately, there is a relatively simple way to do this and it’s called runoff elections. The theory is simple — if no single candidate gets more than half of the vote, then the two highest vote getters face off in a runoff election, mano a mano. We already do this for the office of commissioner for the Bureau of Labor and Industries. Earlier this year a special election for the seat vacated by Val Hoyle did not give any one of the three candidates a majority of the vote. So now voters have an opportunity to vote again, this time for the two who received the greatest number of votes in the May election.
A recent example of runoff elections in action occurred in Georgia in 2020 when none of the contenders for the two open U.S. Senate seats received a majority. One month later, after a runoff, Jon Ossoff, and Raphael Warnock emerged from the dust of that heated election as victors with a majority of voters marking their ballots with those candidates names.
Another interesting way to strengthen our election process in Oregon would be to adopt what is called ranked choice voting or RCV. In this process, voters rank their choice of candidates in order of preference, first, second, third, etc. When ballots are tallied, if more than half the voters rate a single candidate in first place, that candidate wins. But, if no candidate emerges at the top, as is likely in our upcoming gubernatorial race, then the candidate with the fewest number of first-place votes is eliminated from the list and that candidate’s voters’ votes go to whomever they placed next on their priority list. Votes continue to be divvied out based on people’s rankings until one candidate emerges with the majority of votes.
Currently, Alaska and Maine use RCV for all federal and state general elections, and Maine also uses it in statewide primaries. In the South, six states — Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina — use RCV for all overseas and military ballots. And in Oregon it is used in Benton County and Corvallis for local elections.
Advocates of RCV say the process rewards those candidates who try to appeal to a wider swath of voters, rather than just a small group of partisan extremists. In places where it is used, voters express greater satisfaction and confidence not only in the election outcomes but also in the process itself because it tends to lead to less negative campaigning. And these days, having greater confidence in anything having to do with politics is important and ought to be replicated.
Across the country polls show that apathy, antagonism, distrust, and disdain toward government are at all time highs. And while there are plenty of reasons for this, it does not help when our elections elevate people into office who did not win a majority of the vote.
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