Opinion: How Texas Can Ensure Trust in Elections

Voting booths | Image by vesperstock

What’s the best way to ensure that Texans trust our elections?

This isn’t a hypothetical question. It’s the central problem with a policy known as “ranked-choice voting,” which the state legislature is currently debating. Our state lawmakers need to reach the right answer, because if they get it wrong, trust in our elections and democracy is going to plummet even lower than it already is.

Ranked-choice voting is a fairly new concept that’s drawn a lot of attention in recent years. It’s a fundamental departure from the voting process we’re all used to. Instead of voting for one person, as we do now, we’d be forced to rank multiple candidates in a race, from the one we like best to the one we like least. If there are three candidates, we’d rank all three. If there are 333, we might have to rank that many, too.

It only gets more complex. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote—a frequent occurrence that currently leads to the runoff elections that just happened all over Texas—the least-popular candidate gets kicked off the ballot. Anyone who voted for them first has their vote shifted to their second-ranked candidate. The process repeats until someone gets a majority.

Confusing, right? That didn’t stop Austin voters from approving ranked-choice voting for city elections in 2021. Here in Dallas, calls are growing to make the same move. The argument goes that changing how we vote will lead to fewer “extreme” candidates, while creating “instant runoffs” so we don’t have to vote once only to vote again a few weeks later.

Even though Austin passed ranked-choice voting two years ago, a 20-year-old opinion from the Secretary of State interpreted Texas law to prohibit this policy. As a result, Austin’s law hasn’t gone into effect. That’s where the state legislature comes in. While some lawmakers want to explicitly allow ranked-choice voting, a bipartisan group wants to clearly and permanently block it—for good reason.

In reality, other states have learned the hard way that ranked-choice voting sows enormous chaos and distrust.

California made headlines earlier this year when a county announced that it had declared the wrong winner in a ranked-choice election. The person who came in third actually came in first—a fact that didn’t come out until nearly two months after election day. Turns out, the confusing process of eliminating candidates and divvying up people’s second-, third-, and fourth-place votes is easy to mess up. And contrary to the claims of an “instant runoff,” it can take weeks or even months to get the counting done right, as places like New York City have found. That’s not good for rebuilding trust in elections.

What’s more, ranked-choice voting is the antithesis of “one person, one vote.” You have to rank multiple candidates, potentially even those you deeply oppose or find morally or personally disturbing. If you don’t, your vote can get thrown out. In New York City’s 2021 mayoral primary, 14% of votes were ultimately tossed. In a recent San Francisco election, about half of the ballots were chucked. Who will trust democracy when your vote counts in some cases, but not in others?

These concerns led the state Senate to pass a bill prohibiting ranked-choice voting in March. It’s now held up in the House. If our lawmakers don’t act, cities may move ahead with ranked-choice voting anyway.

Our leaders may want to remember a recent poll from the Texas Lyceum. It found that only 68 percent of Texans strongly agree that democracy is the best form of government—a 14 percent drop in just two years. If ranked-choice voting isn’t permanently prohibited, you can bet trust in democracy is going to keep falling.

Victoria Eardley, a resident of North Dallas, is marketing director at the Foundation for Government Accountability.

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