Connecticut would explore a ranked-choice voting system in congressional races and presidential primaries under a bill proposed last week by a bipartisan pair of state senators.
Ranked-choice voting, often referred to as instant-runoff voting, is an electoral system thought to encourage political civility and boost the viability of third-party candidates by asking voters to rank candidates for office rather than just choosing one. If a voter’s first choice fails to capture a majority of the vote, then that voter’s ballot is for their second, then third, or fourth choice instead.
The system allows citizens to support candidates they may consider to be longshots without worrying about throwing their votes away. Advocates say it also promotes more positive campaign discourse by discouraging candidates from attacking their opponents — voters aren’t likely to make a candidate their second choice if that candidate spent the election cycle attacking their first choice.
Ranked-choice has recently gotten some attention in Connecticut. After being sworn in for a second term in office earlier this month, Gov. Ned Lamont suggested the system may “take some of the sting out of politics and bring some of the decency back to public service.”
But a bill on the subject has already been filed by an unlikely pair state lawmakers: Sens. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, and Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield. In an interview Wednesday, Hwang said he believed the system could encourage more voter engagement than the current methodology.
“I think ranked-choice voting allows a greater opportunity for different viewpoints to be voiced during the campaign and to engage every vote as a factor even if their candidate didn’t win on the first round, it allows that individual’s vote to have far greater resonance,” he said.
Osten said she agreed to co-sponsor the bipartisan bill after speaking with advocates of ranked-choice voting and believed the concept deserved to be vetted through a public hearing in the Government Administration and Elections Committee.
At the moment, Connecticut election officials are not equipped to implement a ranked-choice voting system. Christopher Prue, the Democratic registrar of voters in Vernon and president of the Registrars of Voters Association of Connecticut, said it would be impossible to carry out an election using ranked-choice voting given the aging tabulator machines used by local officials in the state’s 169 municipalities.
“The state and state legislature would need to approve brand new and high-tech tabulators before that would even be possible,” Prue said in an email this week. “Of course anything is possible in the future depending on the decisions of state leaders.”
Osten, co-chair of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee, said Connecticut towns likely should be replacing their tabulators anyway and it’s possible state policymakers may eventually offset the cost of buying new machines.
“The state provided a lot of the money that started with the tabulators they have now,” Osten said. “So it’s not beyond the pale, the idea that we would consider working on helping towns and cities to replace the tabulators should we get to that point. That’s really further down on the list of things. We just don’t know if we are going to be able to engage enough people to give it a chance.”
On Thursday, the governor said he was still considering proposing his own legislation on ranked-choice voting this year, though after discussions with Secretary of the State Stephanie Thomas, Lamont expected the bill may focus on studying the issue rather than implementing it.
“Stephanie says we need new voting machines in order to make that a reality,” Lamont said. “So it’s not going to be immediate but I want to make sure we lay the groundwork for at least the study so we know how to get there.”
Last week, Rep. Matt Blumenthal, a Stamford Democrat who co-chairs the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said he expected his panel to have a discussion about the governor’s eventual bill.
“I think ranked-choice voting is an idea that requires significant study before any decision about whether or how to implement it in Connecticut is made,” Blumenthal said.
While several states have allowed ranked-choice voting at the local level, only Alaska and Maine have implemented the system on a statewide basis. Last week, opponents in Alaska began a petition process to return that state to a traditional voting system, according to Alaska Public Media.
Here in Connecticut, Osten said the bill she drafted with Hwang gives towns permission, rather than a mandate, to use the system.
“So towns don’t have to worry about it right now,” Osten said. “They’ve often gotten pieces of legislation that have passed in the General Assembly, giving them an opportunity to try this and they can choose not to do it.”