Ranked Choice Voting Legislation Draws Bipartisan Support

This Piece was co-authored with Ethan Fitzgerald.

This Piece was co-authored with Ethan Fitzgerald.
This Piece was co-authored with Ethan Fitzgerald.


With 2017 state legislative sessions fully underway (and in some cases already drawing to a close), ranked choice voting is becoming an increasingly popular proposal. There are now 18 states with bills advancing ranked choice voting. Ranked choice voting’s ability to both make election cycles more efficient and level the playing field for all candidates and parties makes it popular across the political spectrum - both as a general reform and as a useful tool to solve specific problems. This is reflected in the balanced support that ranked choice voting receives for a range of uses from Republican and Democratic state legislators.

In 2017, 12 bills in 11 states have Republican sponsors or co-sponsors, while 20 bills in 13 states have Democratic sponsors of co-sponsors. These bills represent the full range of ways ranked choice voting can be used to improve local and state democracy.

The most ambitious bills introduced by Republicans were in Missouri, Rhode Island, and Virginia. In Virgina, Del. Nick Freitas introduced HB 2315 to elect all state and federal offices with ranked choice voting. In Rhode Island, five Republicans and independent Rep. Blake Filippi introduced H5513, which adopts ranked choice voting in elections for all state offices.

In Missouri, Rep. Dan Stacy’s HB 856 would require all state and federal offices be elected with ranked choice voting, while Sen. David Sater’s SB 140 would require ranked choice voting be used to elect local offices. Introducing his bill, Stacy said,

“As legislators and citizens, we should always be concerned about having voters being able to express and give measure to their preferences in who governs. Instant runoff voting is the best and most accurate way to understand the will of the people without placing any predetermined propensity toward any one candidate. Instant runoff voting measures the closest ultimate will of the people when more than two candidates run for the same race.”

Republicans introduced important if more modest bills in several other states. Bills to establish commissions that would study ranked choice voting were introduced by Rep. Jesse McLachlan in Connecticut and Rep. Dan Zwonitzer in Wyoming. Ranked choice voting is proposed as a solution for special elections, primaries, and for overseas and military voters in Georgia, New York, North Carolina, and Utah. Illinois and Washington both saw state voting rights acts that offer multi-winner ranked choice voting as a remedy in local voting rights lawsuits.

The notable Democratic legislation includes bills in Illinois, Massachusetts, and Illinois. Sen. Daniel Biss introduced SB 780 in Illinois, which would require all state executive offices be elected with ranked choice voting. In Massachusetts, HB 377 was introduced by Rep. Jay Kaufman to use ranked choice voting to elect all state offices and SB 380 was introduced by Sen. James Eldridge to allow local governments to use ranked choice voting.

Sen. James Eldridge to allow local governments to use ranked choice voting
Sen. James Eldridge to allow local governments to use ranked choice voting

Although many American cities using ranked choice voting can be characterized as politically progressive, Republican support for ranked choice voting is longstanding.

In Utah, Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck introduced HB 349, which would require ranked choice voting be used in primary and general elections for state offices. The bill has the potential to solve an ongoing dispute around the nominating process in Utah, and passed out of committee last week with Republican support in an 8-1 vote. Democrats also introduced bills advancing ranked choice voting in Arizona, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Indiana, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Washington.

Although many American cities using ranked choice voting can be characterized as politically progressive, Republican support for ranked choice voting is longstanding. US Senator John McCain endorsed Alaska’s 2002 ballot measure on ranked choice voting, the Utah Republican Party often uses ranked choice voting to nominate candidates at caucus conventions, former Michigan Republican Party chair Saul Anuzis touted ranked choice voting for presidential nomination contests last year, and numerous Republican leaders supported the historic campaign to adopt ranked-choice voting in Maine statewide last year.

An increasing number of Americans are calling out for more choice and a stronger voice in our elections, and it’s encouraging to see that political parties recognize ranked choice voting as a fair way to empower all voters. FairVote applauds Republican and Democratic lawmakers for turning to ranked choice voting as a means to improve our politics.

U.S. top court backs review of Virginia voting districts in race case

A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S., November 15, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Lawrence Hurley | WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday told a lower court in a voting rights case to reassess whether Virginia's Republican-led legislature unlawfully tried to dilute the clout of black voters when it drew a series of state legislative districts.

A group of voters who filed the legal challenge said the lawmakers improperly considered race as a factor when mapping boundaries of state House of Delegates voting districts. A federal district court in 2015 upheld 12 districts, but the justices directed a three-judge panel of the lower court to take a fresh look at the propriety of 11 of those.

The case is one of a number of lawsuits accusing Republicans of taking steps at the state level to disenfranchise black and other minority voters who tend to back Democratic candidates.

The voters who brought the lawsuit accused Republicans of packing black voters into certain districts to diminish their voting power and make surrounding districts more white and more likely to support Republicans.

The eight-member court was unanimous in ordering the further review of the 11 districts in the opinion written by conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy and voted 7-1 to uphold the other district, with conservative Justice Clarence Thomas asserting that the 12th district should not have been upheld.

Kennedy wrote that the lower court did not sufficiently analyze the consideration of race during the redistricting process.

The lower court had said it needed to look at the race only if the district in question was not drawn based on "traditional redistricting principles." The high court faulted that approach, saying that a regularly drawn map does not tell the full story.

"But if the race for its own sake is the overriding reason for choosing one map over others, race may still predominate," Kennedy wrote.

"For these reasons, a conflict or inconsistency between the enacted plan and traditional redistricting criteria is not a threshold requirement or a mandatory precondition in order for a challenger to establish a claim of racial gerrymandering," he added.

Gerrymandering refers to manipulating the boundaries of a voting district in order to favor a particular party.

The court sidestepped the issue of whether the 11 districts had been drawn by Republicans in a way that violated the voters' rights under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which requires that state legislature districts be drawn based on population.

At issue was the state legislative map was drawn by Republicans after the 2010 census.

Democrats have accused Republicans in Virginia and other states of crafting such legislative maps in a way that crams black and other minority voters into certain districts in order to reduce their overall sway in the state.

Race can be considered in redrawing boundaries of voting districts only in certain instances, such as when states are seeking to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act. That law protects minority voters and was enacted to address a history of racial discrimination in voting, especially in southern states.

In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to throw out a lower court's decision upholding a Republican-backed state legislature redistricting plan in Alabama that crammed black voters into certain districts in a way critics claimed lessened their influence at the polls.

The Supreme Court has never said redistricting cannot be based on nakedly partisan aims like maximizing one party's election chances.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

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Supreme Court Returns Virginia Voting District Case to Lower Court

Photo The case, Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections, concerned a dozen voting districts drawn with at least a 55 percent population of black residents of voting age. Credit J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday gave Virginia Democrats a fresh chance to challenge parts of the legislative map for the state’s House of Delegates.

The decision tried to bring some clarity to the tangled question of what role race can play in drawing voting districts. But the Supreme Court decided very little, leaving it to the trial court to apply a slightly refined definition of racial gerrymandering.

“The upshot of all of this is that not much has changed with these cases,” Richard L. Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, wrote in a blog post. “The fight will be over the details and application to particular cases.”

Marc E. Elias, a lawyer for the challengers in the case, disagreed, calling the decision a “major victory” that will help Democrats.

The case, Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections, No. 15-680, concerned a dozen voting districts drawn after the 2010 census, each with at least a 55 percent population of black residents of voting age.

The Supreme Court has said race cannot be the predominant reason for creating legislative districts.

In 2015, a divided three-judge panel of Federal District Court in Richmond, Va., upheld 11 of the challenged districts because, it said, race had not been the primary factor in drawing them. Since the districts could be justified under traditional redistricting criteria like compactness, contiguity, incumbency protection and political considerations, the court said, the race could not have been the predominant reason for drawing them.

That was the wrong approach, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority. “The racial predominance inquiry concerns the actual considerations that provided the essential basis for the lines drawn,” he wrote, “not post hoc justifications the legislature, in theory, could have used but in reality did not.”

Justice Kennedy noted that the case had some curious features.

The challenged map was enacted, he wrote, “with broad support from both parties and members of the Black Caucus.” Only years later, he said, did voters file a lawsuit asserting a violation of the Constitution’s equal protection principles, saying that lawmakers had packed too many black voters into the districts.

In assessing those challenges, Justice Kennedy wrote, the trial court identified “no fewer than 11 race-neutral redistricting factors.” He called that kind of analysis too malleable.

“By deploying those factors in various combinations and permutations, a state could construct a plethora of potential maps that look consistent with traditional, race-neutral principles,” Justice Kennedy wrote. “But if the race for its own sake is the overriding reason for choosing one map over others, race still may predominate.”

Justice Kennedy did not say the challengers would win under his less rigid standard. “The district court,” he wrote, “is best positioned to determine in the first instance the extent to which, under the proper standard, race directed the shape of these 11 districts.”

The Supreme Court affirmed one part of the trial court’s ruling, concerning a single district, which the trial court had upheld even after finding that race played the dominant role in drawing it. The trial court said the district was justified by an attempt to comply with the Voting Rights Act, which forbade the reduction of minority voters’ ability to elect candidates of their choice.

Justice Kennedy endorsed that reasoning. “The record here supports the legislature’s conclusion that this was one instance where” the 55 percent target “was necessary for black voters to have a functional working majority,” he wrote.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined all of Justice Kennedy’s opinion.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. largely agreed with the majority, though he said he would subject the 11 districts to a demanding level of scrutiny.

In a partial dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas elaborated on Justice Alito’s point and said the court should have struck down the lone district it upheld. “Despite my sympathy for the state,” he wrote, “I cannot ignore the Constitution’s clear prohibition on state-sponsored race discrimination.”

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