Roy Blunt waited until 12:30 a.m. to give a victory speech after winning re-election to the U.S. Senate in 2016.
In a race that tightened in the final weeks of the campaign, Blunt edged Democratic challenger Jason Kander for a victory of national significance. At the time, Blunt’s re-election gave the Republicans 51 votes in the Senate.
“What a great night for our state,” Blunt said from his headquarters in Springfield, Missouri.
It’s possible to view Blunt’s narrow victory as an optical illusion that reveals different things to different people. Blunt won 49.184% percent of the statewide vote, which was more than 46.392% for Kander. It was enough to send the incumbent back to Washington for another six years.
But an alternative viewpoint is that more than 50% of voters chose someone other than Blunt, mostly Kander but also candidates representing the Libertarian, Green and Constitution parties. Under this perspective, Blunt shouldn’t win until he’s able to obtain a majority of votes — meaning more than 50% — in an instant runoff.
That’s the theory behind a “ranked-choice” voting system that one organization, called Better Elections, is trying to bring to Missouri.
“What we heard on the ground, and what our volunteers and signature-gathering teams heard on the ground, was that people were fed up,” said Scott Charton, spokesman for Better Elections. “They are tired of holding their noses and voting for the lesser of two evils.”
Better Elections is pushing for a constitutional amendment to make two major changes in Missouri. If approved in a statewide vote, Missouri would allow open primaries for all congressional races as well as contests for statewide office and the Missouri General Assembly. Republicans and Democrats would vote for the same slew of candidates, with the top four vote-getters in each primary advancing to a general election that would be determined by a ranked-choice system of voting.
Under ranked-choice, voters in the general election would be asked to pick their top candidate and to rank their next second, third and fourth choices. If the first-place candidate fails to claim a majority, as Blunt did in 2016, the fourth-place finisher would be eliminated. Those who voted for the fourth-place candidate as their top choice would have their second-choice votes reassigned to those particular candidates, with the results recalculated to see if someone claims a majority.
Better Elections gathered 300,000 signatures, more than double what’s required, to get ranked-choice and open primaries on the November ballot. The paperwork was submitted to the Secretary of State’s Office on May 8 so that signature verification can begin. A change to open primaries and ranked-choice voting wouldn’t occur until 2024.
Charton said ranked-choice general elections and open primaries give voters more options and reduce the power of special interests and political parties. Candidates still would be identified on ballots as Republican, Democrat or other parties.
“We care about giving voters more choices,” Charton said. “It’s no surprise political parties wouldn’t want reforms and changes to a system that’s obviously broken.”
Question of legitimacy
State Sen. Dan Hegeman fears that ranked-choice voting would be difficult for county clerks to implement and hard to explain to the public. A switch to a new and more complex system could further erode public confidence in election integrity and the legitimacy of the results, he said.
“In my mind, it instills a measure of uncertainty into a process that people are concerned about right now,” said Hegeman, a former county clerk who handles elections legislation in the Senate. “People are concerned about elections already. It would add to that fuel.”
In Maine, ranked-choice voting was used in the 2018 congressional elections. Jared Golden, a Democrat, trailed the Republican incumbent by 2,000 votes but won election to the U.S. House when he claimed more of the second-choice votes in the runoff. This led to legal challenges, but Golden ended up taking his seat in Congress.
Other places that use ranked-choice voting include Ireland, Australia, Alaska, Maine and local jurisdictions in California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah and Vermont.
Dr. Edwin Taylor, a political science professor at Missouri Western State University, said ranked-choice voting could increase participation in elections because more people would feel like their vote will count. He doesn’t think it’s too confusing.
“I like to err on the side of giving people credit,” he said. “I think people could figure it out. In some places, the reviews have been generally positive.”
Charton said both open primaries and ranked-choice voting would force candidates to appeal to a broader segment of the electorate and avoid the negative campaigning that’s both a turnoff to voters and a proven path to victory in the existing format.
“It means candidates will have to go out and campaign for every vote and refrain from mudslinging that turns off the voters because they want to be someone’s second choice if they can’t be the first choice,” he said.
That hasn’t eased the concerns of Republicans who oppose changes to the single-winner, plurality system that has been used for elections large and small. In March, the executive committee of the Missouri GOP passed a resolution opposing ranked-choice voting.
Like other initiative petitions that wind up on the ballot, Hegeman said he has questions about who is behind it and what their motives are.
Campaign finance reports from April show that an organization called Article IV, based in Alexandria, Virginia, has contributed $6.2 million to Better Elections. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Article IV is tied to John and Laura Arnold, a wealthy Texas couple.