A new nonprofit in Arizona thinks it is time to change how the state’s political party primaries are held. And one of the most talked about changes is a move to ranked choice voting, also called instant runoff voting.
Supporters of ranked choice voting in Arizona’s primary elections say it would address what some see as “primary season extremism” in which candidates can move through to the general election by a simple majority of the votes cast even if the candidate fails to receive a true majority of 50 percent plus 1 of the votes.
Such candidates could be curtailed under ranked choice voting when three or more candidates are running because candidates with the largest partisan base have a better change to secure a primary victory, which requires a true majority of first place votes to avoid the instant runoff.
Alaska and Maine use ranked choice voting statewide, while 13 other states have at least one jurisdiction utilizing the process. Another six states have laws for military and overseas voters to cast ranked choice voting ballots in federal runoff elections.
And in three states -Kansas, Nevada, and Wyoming- ranked choice voting was most recently used for the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, while Indiana and Virginia now use ranked choice voting for their political party primary elections.
It is for those primary elections that ranked choice voting is gaining some momentum in Arizona where supporters cite the recent Republican primary for U.S. House of Representatives for Congressional District 1 where incumbent Rep. David Schweikert won over Elijah Norton and Josh Barnett with only 43 percent of the votes cast.
Under ranked choice voting, the CD1 voters would have ranked the three candidates as first choice, second choice, and third choice. If no one received a true majority of 50 percent plus 1 of first place votes, then the last place candidate would have been eliminated.
Assuming the eliminated candidate was Barnett, those voters who ranked him as their top choice would have their other choices moved up one rank (from second to first and third to second) and the votes retabulated. With only two candidates left, the winner between Norton and Schweikert would be decided by who now had the most first place rankings.
Save Democracy AZ is a key advocate for reforming Arizona’s primary election process to ranked choice voting. The group’s efforts have garnered the interest of some current partisan politicians, including State Sen. Paul Boyer (R), Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer (R), Pima County Supervisor Rex Scott (D), and current Democratic nominee for Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes.
However, the Heritage Foundation recently published a report by Hans von Spakovsky and J. Adams warning against the rush by “reformers” to change the election tabulation process through ranked choice voting.
The report points to legislation which would have changed California to ranked choice voting that was vetoed in 2016 by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, who argued the process deprived voters of genuine choice and was “overly complicated.”
The authors also argue the outcomes of ranked choice voting can be more easily manipulated by those wanting to obtain -or retain- power. And the elimination process used with ranked choice voting when there are multiple candidates can leave voters disenfranchised, according to the Heritage Foundation report.
“In the end, a voter’s ballot might wind up being cast for the candidate he ranked far below his first choice—a candidate to whom he may have strong political objections and for whom he would not vote in a traditional voting system,” the authors note.
In addition, von Spakovsky and Adams argue that voters who do not rank all of the listed candidates can end up having no say in post-elimination rounds of tabulation. But the biggest disadvantage, according to the authors, is that the ultimate winner can be someone who never received the majority of first-place votes to begin with.
The idea of changing Arizona’s primary election process already has a long line of critics, including Tyler Bowyer, who is one of state’s three representatives on the Republican National Committee.
Republicans and Democrats should reject this squishy middle group— on the left and the right, who want to completely turn AZ’s elections upside down pic.twitter.com/Lg8BI7qnKn
— Tyler Bowyer 🇺🇸 (@tylerbowyer) September 17, 2022
Bowyer has said he will introduce a resolution at the RNC’s January 2023 meeting to formally oppose ranked choice voting.
Jose Borrajeo, director of the Arizona People’s Lobbyist, points out that ranked-choice voting has been so unpopular that House Bill 2378 introduced by Rep. Tim Dunn (R-Yuma) during the 2021 legislative session was never even put up for a vote in the Republican controlled House Government & Elections committee.
“What is wrong with simply voting for one’s top choice and have the top vote getter win?” Borrajeo asked. “Why do we have to make elections more complicated than they already are? The obvious answer is that the more complicated the system is the greater the opportunity for mischief.”
Save Democracy AZ is discussing whether to take the idea of ranked choice voting for primaries directly to voters in 2024. Some of its other “team members” listed on the group’s website are former U.S. Rep. Ron Barber (D), former U.S. Rep Jim Kolbe (R), former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson (D), current Mesa Mayor John Giles (R), former Mesa Mayor Scott Smith (R), former State Sen. Bob Worsley (R), and GOP candidate for Arizona Secretary of State Beau Lane.
In the meantime, one Capitol insider told Arizona Daily Independent that voters need to look hard at who is promoting ranked choice voting and why.
“This idea is largely supported by politicians who either lost their election or expect to lose their next election,” the insider said. “They can’t imagine that they are the problem or that the voters don’t want them, so they try to change the rules in a way they think will benefit themselves. No one should be fooled by them because they have no noble intentions.”