Is it right for a candidate to win an election with a fraction of the vote? That can happen in a crowded field. There is an alternative, something called ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to list their preferred candidates in order. And Clearwater is beginning to embrace it, joining communities around the country in trying to blunt some of the impediments to fair elections.
The City Council agreed to hold a referendum on whether to adopt ranked-choice voting in city elections. Florida law currently prohibits it, but it’s time to allow communities like Clearwater to experiment with this system, which can give voters more meaningful choices in elections.
Here’s how ranked-choice voting works. Voters choose all the candidates they like, rather than voting for just one, ranking them from their top choice on down. It requires a candidate to receive a majority of 50%-plus one vote to win an election. If no candidate wins a majority, the person with the fewest votes is eliminated and that candidate’s ballots are redistributed to their voters’ second-choice candidates and so on. It would take voters a bit of getting used to, but it offers a number of advantages.
One, it allows voters to choose their favorite candidate, plain and simple. For example, if two conservative candidates and one liberal candidate are running in a school board race, a voter might prefer one of the two conservatives but worry about them splitting the vote and allowing the liberal candidate to win. With ranked choice, the voter lists all candidates in order of preference. This could also encourage more candidates to get into a race, without fear of hurting their own party’s chances. Ranked-choice voting gives voters more choices across the board.
The system creates better winners by requiring a majority to win an election, instead of the current way, which allows candidates who receive even a small plurality to assume office. It also forces single-issue candidates to take a position on more issues. Advocates say ranked choice gives third-party candidates and those without deep fundraising wells a better chance. Even better, it can make for more civil campaigns since candidates are asking voters to choose them as even a second or third choice on the ballot. In places with ranked-choice voting, candidates in the same race have appeared together in ads asking voters to vote for both of them. That would be a refreshing change from the nasty attack ads that blanket Florida’s airwaves every election year.
In Clearwater, the City Council is moving forward with language for a referendum next March that would let voters decide whether to adopt ranked-choice voting. It’s a bold but reasonable move for the city, where nine candidates vied for two council seats last year. The city of Sarasota adopted rank-choice voting more than a decade ago. Despite being supported by 77 percent of residents, it has never taken effect because state law says winning candidates must receive the highest number of votes cast in a general or special election. It’s a minor distinction that the Legislature can — and should — fix.
Florida election law is peppered with such arcane rules that stand in the way of running modern elections that make voting easy and elections fair. For example, write-in candidates — who have no chance of winning and usually don’t even campaign — can close primaries by filing to run in a race where all the candidates are from one party, disenfranchising countless voters. This absurd loophole in state law should be permanently closed. Even better, all primaries in Florida should be open so that no-party voters can participate.
Ranked-choice voting is not a new or untested system. It’s already working in other states and communities, giving voters clear winners up and down the ballot. Early voting is currently under way in New York City for the next mayor, with voters navigating a ranked-choice election for the first time. With cities such as Sarasota and Clearwater similarly seeking reasonable ways to run fairer, more open elections, it’s time for Florida law to catch up.
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