California bill would ban ranked choice voting

Proposal expected to be heard in a legislative committee in the coming weeks.

Updated: March 2, 2022 - 11:18pm

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A proposal to ban ranked choice voting in California is expected to be heard in a legislative committee in the coming weeks, leaving lawmakers to weigh a measure that would alter the way elections are completed in several cities across the state.

The proposal, contained in Assembly Bill 2808, would prohibit ranked choice voting in state and local elections. A ranked choice voting system allows voters to rank candidates based on preference, having voters indicate their first choice, second choice and so on.

The bill’s author, Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell, said in a statement that ranked choice voting “allows an election to be gamed.”

“Our democracy and our recent elections may be under heightened stress and scrutiny right now, but our long-established voting system is strong,” O’Donnell said. “We are a model for the world. We must not abandon our voting principles to chase the election flavor of the month.”

If passed, the proposal would shift how elections are completed in several areas across the state. Berkeley, Oakland, San Leandro and San Francisco adopted a ranked-voting system in the early 2000s and have used it for more than a decade to elect city officials, according to Fair Vote, an advocate of ranked choice voting. Additionally, Albany, Eureka and Palm Desert were set to begin using a ranked-voting system for local elections starting in November 2022.

The method is also used widely in several other states, including Utah, where it is utilized for elections in 20 cities. The state of Maine also adopted ranked choice voting in 2016 and used it in 2018 for all state and federal primary elections and general elections for Congress, according to Fair Vote. Maine used the system in 2020 for the general election for president as well.

Proponents of the system say the method helps improve diversity among elected officials and reduces polarization by incentivizing candidates to appeal to broader swaths of voters.

“There’s a simple, cost-effective change that is proven to make democracy more fair, more representative, and more functional. It’s called Ranked Choice Voting, and it’s already making government better in California and other states across the U.S.,” the California RCV (Ranked Choice Voting) Coalition wrote on its website.

O’Donnell, however, said he believes the current voting system works as is, even if it results in a run-off election. Within the bill text, O’Donnell wrote that ranked choice voting is “fundamentally more complicated” than other alternatives and can lead to mistakes that could “further disenfranchise voters.”

Opponents of the system also argue that ranked choice voting can lead to situations where a winning candidate will fall short of a majority of the vote. In the bill text, O’Donnell wrote that elections where winners fail to receive a “plurality of the vote”, is an “undemocratic outcome.”

“[The current system] is the best system out there and California should stick with what works and not follow fads that alter the voice of voters,” O’Donnell said. “Elections can be messy and the process takes time, but that’s how democracy works and we should not change it. The right to vote is a fundamental American value and should not be molded into something akin to playing a predictive video game.”

This bill is not the first time lawmakers have backed measures to prohibit ranked choice voting. Tennessee recently moved forward with its own ban on ranked choice voting earlier this week. Gov. Bill Lee signed legislation on Monday prohibiting the system from being used in state and local elections.

O’Donnell’s bill could be heard in committee on March 21, according to the state’s legislative tracker.