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Republicans aim to ban ranked choice voting

Jakob Thorington for the Arizona Capitol Times

Legislative Republicans are working to outlaw ranked choice voting despite the fact the practice isn’t used in Arizona.

The Senate Elections Committee passed House Bill 2552 – the bill that would prohibit ranked choice voting—on March 20. The bill is one step closer to reaching the desk of Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs and only needs approval on the Senate floor.

“In our country we’ve always had one person, one vote. Ranked choice voting gives three or four or several choices and those choices may not even be heard when it comes to the final tally,” said the bill sponsor Rep. Austin Smith, R-Wittmann, during a March 20 Senate Elections Committee hearing. “Ranked choice voting is extreme because it is throwing out people’s ballots and votes,” he continued.

Ranked choice voting allows voters to rank candidates in the order they prefer. If a candidate doesn’t get a majority of votes, then the next preference among voters is considered until a candidate wins a majority based on adjusted votes.

Democrats disagreed with Smith’s argument that voters would have their ballots discarded if their preferred candidate didn’t make it to the final tally. Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, said during the hearing that the argument stems from a misunderstanding of voters simply not ranking their less preferred candidates – which effectively is not casting a vote.

“We all understand that the candidate who can attract the broadest support should be the one to advance in an election and ranked choice voting does just that,” Mendez said.

Other states have practiced ranked choice voting including Alaska, Nevada, California, Washington, Oregon, New York and Louisiana.

The voting system took the national spotlight when former Alaska Republican Gov. Sarah Palin lost to Democrat Mary Peltola during Alaska’s special election for its single seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Peltola received more first-place and second-place votes than her two Republican opponents in the race, despite nearly 60% of voters casting their first-place ballots either for Palin or her GOP opponent Nick Begich.

“Everywhere ranked choice voting is really being used, it delays the process, it disenfranchises voters, ballots become exhausted — it has more negatives than it does positives,” Smith said during the hearing.

The push to preemptively ban ranked choice voting is from Arizona Freedom Caucus Republicans. Sen. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, has a mirror bill to Austin’s and led a press conference last week with other Freedom Caucus members to speak out against ranked choice voting where they argued that it disenfranchises voters.

“RCV may not always result in the candidate with the most first-choice votes winning the election,” Kern said in a statement. “I am aware that there are groups in Arizona advocating for RCV, but this will only lead to chaos, and we must ensure that our constituents have easy and fair access to the ballot box.”

Highground CEO Chuck Coughlin lobbies with Save Democracy AZ, a group that is advocating for ranked choice voting. He said

Freedom Caucus members are afraid of ranked choice voting because it would mean many of them wouldn’t be able to win an election without the security of a noncompetitive district’s low turnout primary election.

“They don’t have any competition. They don’t routinely have a challenge in the general election,” Coughlin said. “You need to put more ideas into the marketplace, and they don’t want that.”

Coughlin said ranked choice voting doesn’t only affect more extreme Republicans, but Democrats too. He noted several “corporate” Democrats like Cesar Chavez and Morgan Abraham in safe Democratic districts lost their primary races to more left-wing opponents. During the 2022 general election, the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission only identified five districts as “competitive” during the general election.

“It’s not favoring one party or another,” Coughlin said. “It makes sure that general election voters make the decision, not primary voters.”

Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, argued ranked choice voting puts forth candidates with “less popular ideas” among the electorate by allowing candidates to be elected even though they’re prioritized less by voters.

Most legislative Republicans are supporting Smith and Kern’s bills. Smith’s bill has 38 Republican cosponsors and there are 47 Republicans in the Legislature.

Christian Lorentzen, an independent voter who testified against Smith’s bill in the Senate Elections hearing, said the proposal clashes against the entrepreneurial spirit the U.S. has seen in its election processes, such as voters electing senators directly or individual citizens being allowed to participate in primaries.

“I think by passing this (bill), we’re not allowing the citizens of Arizona, or individual cities, to try this new concept to see what’d it’d be like, and I think that’s the main danger of it,” Lorentzen said.

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