Wisconsin lawmakers weigh ranked choice voting bill as opponents push for a ban

A bipartisan bill to implement a ranked choice voting system for congressional candidates had its first hearing in the Wisconsin Legislature, while a group of Republican legislators have proposed a constitutional amendment to prohibit this system.

Associated Press

December 12, 2023

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Stickers with the words I Voted Today against a red, white and blue background sit on the surface of a wood laminate table.

Voting stickers sit on a table at a polling place on Nov. 8, 2022, in the town of Fulton in Rock County. A bipartisan bill to how Wisconsin voters choose congressional candidates by asking them to rank their top choices instead of voting for one of two candidates had its first public hearing on Dec. 12, 2023. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

AP News

By Todd Richmond and Harm Verhuizen, AP

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A bipartisan bill that would dramatically change how Wisconsin residents choose congressional candidates by asking them to rank their top choices instead of voting for one of two candidates had its first public hearing in the state Legislature on Dec. 12.

The hearing comes just a week after opponents circulated a proposed constitutional amendment to ban ranked choice voting. It’s unclear whether either measure has enough support to pass, but the movement shows the idea is gaining attention in the battleground state.

The bill before the state Senate’s elections committee on Dec. 12 would implement a ranked choice voting system known as final five. Under the system, all candidates for a U.S. House or Senate seat would appear together on a primary ballot regardless of their party, with the top five finishers advancing to the general election. Right now, Republicans and Democrats run on separate ballots in partisan primaries.

Voters in the general election would then rank the five primary winners in order of preference. If a candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, they win. If no one gets a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and anyone who had that person as their first choice instead has their vote go to their second ranked choice. The process continues until one candidate has a majority of votes. Currently, candidates can win a seat without a majority.

A bipartisan group of 21 lawmakers has signed onto the bill as co-sponsors.

“Right now the parties are incentivized to hold power, and they do that through party primaries,” former U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble, a Wisconsin Republican, testified on Dec. 12. “What final five does is eliminate partisan primaries.”

According to Ribble, removing partisan primaries would motivate candidates to focus more on policies that benefit the voters they represent, instead of clinging to party lines.

Wisconsin legislators have introduced the proposal in each of the past two legislative sessions, but each time it went nowhere. Dec. 12 was the first time the plan has received a hearing.

This time around, Republican opponents are on the offensive, pushing a constitutional amendment that would outlaw ranked choice voting.

Advocates say a ranked choice system offers voters more choices and reduces negative campaigning since candidates need to appeal to as broad a swath of voters as possible to win second- and third-place marks. They also insist the system gives third-party and independent candidates a better chance.

“This gives all voters an opportunity to vote for that person that they really do align with,” said Democratic Sen. Jeff Smith, one of the bill’s lead authors. “This bill has the opportunity to change the divisiveness in Washington.”

Opponents argued that the system is difficult to understand, especially for elderly and vulnerable voters, and that the results would be difficult to count. They have also voiced concerns about the system being manipulated and said the approach equates to giving an elector multiple votes in the same election, flying in the face of the “one person, one vote” philosophy.

The conservative lobbying group Opportunity Solutions Project testified against the bill on Dec. 12, with lobbyists arguing that the system would lead to some ballots being thrown out in runoffs if a voter only ranked a single candidate and that candidate was eliminated.

“As a voter, under ranked choice voting you are forced to rank every candidate in order to guarantee that your vote will count,” Madeline Malisa, an Opportunity Solutions Project lobbyist, said.

Maine adopted a ranked choice system in 2016 for all federal elections and state primaries. Alaska went to a ranked choice system for state and federal races in 2020. No other state has adopted it, although three counties and 45 cities across the nation use it for local elections, according to FairVote. Voters in Nevada passed a ballot question last year to implement ranked choice; it must pass again in 2024 to take effect.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers did not immediately respond to a message inquiring about whether he supports ranked choice voting.

Associated Press writers Geoff Mulvihill in Philadelphia, Becky Bohrer in Juneau, Alaska, and Gabe Stern in Carson City, Nevada, contributed to this report.

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