In 2007, voters in the city of Sarasota approved adopting a ranked choice voting system for local elections with a 75% majority. After Sarasota voters approved the change in their voting system, the next step was for the Florida secretary of state to certify the software used to count votes in the new system, but they’ve refused to do so, requiring the city to seek a declaratory judgment to verify that what 75% of voters said they wanted is supported by the Florida Constitution.
Worse, when the City Commission just held a hearing Sept. 20 to discuss the issue, and many citizens, including myself, spoke up on the issue, almost all in favor of the commission taking action to defend the voters’ decision in 2007, the commission instead spend most of the time discussing whether each member of the commission personally thought ranked choice voting was a good idea.
Do we live in a democracy? Or are our votes just a suggestion?
What is ranked choice voting?
Ranked choice voting is not a bizarre fringe idea. A number of countries, including Canada and New Zealand, use it for national elections, and states including Utah, Colorado, Michigan and Oregon use it for local elections.
As the image below shows, a typical ranked choice election would have voters rank all of the candidates for a position, picking their first, second, third choices, and so on if there are more candidates.
If no one gets more than 50% of the vote, then the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated, and people who chose that candidate as their first choice have their votes reallocated to their second choice. This continues until one candidate gets more than 50% of the vote. Not-for-profit organization Rank My Vote Florida has a short and very clear video explaining ranked choice voting.
This system has a number of advantages over our usual “pick one candidate” voting system. As New College political science professor Frank Alcock said at the Sept. 20 commission hearing, ranked choice voting allows voters to express much more completely their preferences — saying that who you select as first, second … and last puts a lot more of your preferences into the final decision than does only getting to pick one candidate among many.
Ranked choice voting is popular with voters who experience using it. At the hearing, commissioners heard from Rank My Vote Florida, a statewide grassroots organization of Floridians advocating for ranked choice voting in their cities who gave a detailed presentation on the merits of ranked choice voting and its use around the world and across the U.S.
Stan Lockhart, a former GOP chair for the state of Utah, also spoke in favor of ranked choice voting, explaining how popular and effective it has been in Utah since the state adopted it for local elections. Polling results from a number of U.S. cities show that huge majorities of voters approve of ranked choice voting once they had a chance to use it, which is not surprising because ranked choice votes tend to result in winners that a large majority of people had in their top three choices.
Most people would prefer their second or third choice win to having their last choice win, and in many of our elections, people see either their first choice or their last choice win. Currently, it’s all or nothing, and a substantial minority are always deeply unhappy with the outcome, while in ranked choice voting, usually most people at least get their second or third choice and are less unhappy about the outcome.
Doesn’t that sound pleasant in an era in which it seems someone is disputing every election outcome?
What's the sticking point in adopting ranked choice voting in Sarasota?
After Sarasota voters approved the change in their voting system, the next step was for the Florida secretary of state to certify the software used to count votes in the new system. But they have refused to do so, citing the Florida Constitution Article VI, which states “General elections shall be decided by a plurality of votes cast.”
Ranked choice voting selects a winner who gets a majority, not just a plurality, of votes. But Florida law defines a general election as “an election held … for the purpose of filling national, state, county and district offices.” By the state’s own legal definitions, the limitation cited by the secretary of state does not apply to municipal elections.
So not only did the City Commission discuss whether to give it their blessing, but the secretary of state also denied that ranked choice voting conformed to the Florida Constitution, when it fact it does conform. Citizens should be outraged at this paternalistic handling of voters’ clearly articulated decision to adopt ranked choice voting.
At the Sept. 20 meeting, the commission was to vote on the proposal for the city of Sarasota to seek a declaratory judgment that the Florida Constitution allows ranked choice voting in municipal elections. That would clear the way for the secretary of state to certify the software needed for the new city election system.
The city would bear no costs for seeking this judgment; Rank My Vote Florida has raised the money to pay for the lawyers and legal arguments and to bring the right stakeholders to the process to make the effort succeed.
The commission also heard from Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard and Gainesville Commissioner Harvey Ward. They explained that both cities want to approve a move to ranked choice voting but are stymied by the secretary of state’s decision on Sarasota. Only Sarasota has legal standing to ask the courts to look at the secretary of state’s decision and to try to get a clearer reading on state law that would allow cities to adopt ranked choice voting.
So not only has the secretary of state’s misreading of the law denied Sarasota voters the voting system they overwhelmingly chose, but it has also prevented many other cities in Florida from adopting ranked choice voting for fear the secretary of state won’t certify their new election software either.
After more than an hour of discussion, the City Commission voted to approve the proposal to ask the court for a summary judgment with a 4-1 vote, with Mayor Hagen Brody the only no vote — in spite of 75% of his own city’s voters supporting ranked choice voting. But the next day, Vice Mayor Erik Arroyo asked the commission to revisit the decision in October. So it is not over yet.
This decision should not be even remotely controversial.
When 75% of city voters make a decision, the job of the commission is to respect and defend that vote, not to decide if they agree with the voters’ decision. But unfortunately, the majority of the discussion and debate among commissioners Sept. 20 was, “Is ranked choice voting good?” not “Should we defend our voters’ decision or not?”
And the decision to table what Sarasotans voted for and revisit it is a shocking maneuver to stall and obstruct what voters want.
Rather than take the simple and costless step of asking the court for a ruling that will allow the choice of city voters to go into effect, the commission will again debate whether they agree with the voters’ decision.
It’s kind of outrageous.
Adrian Moore is the vice president of Reason Foundation and lives in Sarasota.