A by-mail ballot asks voters in 2020 to approve a measure calling for rank choice voting, which was approved. A petition is now circulating calling for another ballot measure to repeal rank choice. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire file photo)

A by-mail ballot asks voters in 2020 to approve a measure calling for rank choice voting, which was approved. A petition is now circulating calling for another ballot measure to repeal rank choice. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire file photo)

Opinion: Failed election shows why Alaska should repeal ranked-choice voting

Most Americans just want elections where it’s easy to vote, hard to cheat and easy to trust the results. Alaska has experimented with ranked-choice voting (RCV) and a citizens’ initiative now proposes to repeal it. That would be the smart choice to protect Alaska elections.

RCV makes the process more complicated, both for voters and for those who run elections. An example of an actual failed election shows how the problems with RCV can come together to create a perfect storm.

California allows local governments to use RCV for local elections. Alameda County, home to the city of Oakland, used RCV in its elections last November. At first, everything appeared to have gone just fine. The county certified vote totals and winners in all of their local elections. Weeks later, as county staff prepared for Christmas break, they got a phone call that upended everything.

Independent researchers had audited the county’s election and found a mistake. Actually, they found a series of mistakes that threw off results in multiple races. Because RCV makes elections more dependent on technology, much of the process happens inside a “black box.” This lack of transparency meant that no one at the county ever noticed the error. Neither did anyone at any of the campaigns. If not for the audit, nobody ever would have discovered what happened.

The trouble began with confused voters. Even RCV supporters admit their system requires expensive education campaigns to help voters figure it out. Alameda County had done that, but voters still made a variety of mistakes. What mattered in this case is that some voters did not rank anyone first but did rank one or more candidates. In other words, a voter might have left the first-place bubbles blank but filled in a vote for someone as a second or third choice.

This mistake is only possible in an RCV system, and there are different ways to interpret and count these ballots. Alameda County rules said that preference votes with gaps should be moved up before counting begins. In other words, if the first preference is blank but a second preference is filled in, it gets counted as if it was the voters first preference. But the computers, which are necessary to process and count RCV ballots efficiently, were programed to ignore the blanks.

This changed the vote totals in the county’s RCV elections, although most differences were small. Yet in an Oakland school board race, it changed the outcome.

There were three candidates: Mike Hutchinson, Pecolia Manigo and Nick Resnick. Under any rules, Resnick had a significant lead in the first round. One of the other candidates was going to be eliminated. With the machines applying the wrong rule and discarding 235 ballots, Hutchinson was 41 votes behind Manigo, and was eliminated. But when those 235 ballots were adjusted and counted the right way, Hutchinson led Manigo by 37 votes.

This completely flipped the race. Hutchinson went from being eliminated in the first RCV round to winning. This happened because many more of the ballots that lacked a first-preference vote had Hutchinson as their highest-ranked candidate rather than Manigo. But then Manigo’s voters, in their next-highest preference, supported Hutchinson over Resnick by about two-to-one.

RCV creates new ways for voters to make mistakes and new questions about how to count ballots. At the same time, it makes elections overreliant on technology, reducing transparency and accountability. The Oakland school board election was a relatively simple race, with just three candidates and two rounds of counting. Yet doing it efficiently meant relying on computers — not just to count ballots, but to adjust and eliminate them as well.

It was March of 2023 before the Oakland school board election mess was finally sorted out. A court ordered a “recertification of the results,” and the rightful winner took office four months after Election Day. (The candidate who was previously sworn in had already resigned after serving on the board for about a month.) The fact is that consequential mistakes like this can happen in any large RCV election, and, in many cases, they may never be detected.

Elections should be conducted so that voters can understand the process and trust the results. RCV fails this test. Even worse, it pushes elections into a technological black box where mistakes can go undetected. This led to a failed election in California just last year. Alaska voters should continue to push for a repeal of RCV.

• Trent England and Jason Snead are coauthors of the forthcoming book “The Case Against Ranked-Choice Voting,” from which this article is adapted.

More in Opinion

Web
Have something to say?

Here’s how to add your voice to the conversation.

Israeli soldiers are seen near the Gaza Strip border in southern Israel on Monday. The army is battling Palestinian militants across Gaza in the war ignited by Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack into Israel. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
My Turn: Israel/Gaza and historic, religious and ethnic challenges of global terrorism

Dixie Belcher’s article titled “Palestinian residents are helpless victim in attacks made… Continue reading

(Juneau Empire file photo)
Letter: Legislature will best serve Alaskans by rejecting Dunleavy’s executive orders

Dunleavy’s executive orders have nothing to do with “streamlining” and everything to… Continue reading

Students enter a bus stopped on Douglas Highway during the first day of the 2023-2024 school year. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)
My Turn: Unintended consequences of the school district reorganization plan

During school board public comment sessions on proposed school reorganization options, many… Continue reading

Former President Donald Trump speaks to a capacity crowd at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage on July 9, 2022. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Opinion: A primary election of ill-informed voters

On Tuesday, Republicans across the state will help anoint Donald Trump as… Continue reading

HEX Cook Inlet, LLC and Subsidiaries presents a check to the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Administration in October of 2023. (Photo courtesy of the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Administration)
My Turn: The Legislature should rein in AIDEA

This story has been updated to correct the photo caption, which originally… Continue reading

(Juneau Empire file photo)
Letter: What’s wrong with this picture?

At 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 24, I and several other moms and… Continue reading

Palestinians sell goods next to buildings destroyed by an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians displaced by the war took refuge in Rafahor, which is likely Israel’s next focus in its war against Hamas. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)
My Turn: Palestinian residents are helpless victims in attacks made by leaders

In 1948 the United Nations gave the country of Palestine to European… Continue reading

The Juneau School District administrative office, which would be closed and turned over to Juneau’s municipal government under a pending consolidation plan. (City and Borough of Juneau photo)
Opinion: Juneau School District edges closer to balanced budget, but what’s next?

After a marathon public hearing last week, the Juneau School District (JSD)… Continue reading

Most Read