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Assembly committee considers final-five runoff system for Wisconsin’s congressional elections

by Henry Redman, Wisconsin Examiner
January 10, 2024

The Wisconsin Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections heard testimony for more than five hours Tuesday on a bill to establish a final-five runoff voting system for the state’s congressional elections. 

The bipartisan proposal, authored by Rep. Ron Tusler (R-Harrison) and Sen. Jeff Smith (D-Brunswick), would move Wisconsin to a system already used in Alaska’s elections. The goal, the authors said during their testimony, is to change the incentive system in the state’s elections and move the more competitive contest from the primary election to the general in the hopes that this reduces partisanship and leads to better problem solving in Washington D.C. 

“I think it’s all about incentives and I think it clarifies — I believe a lot of our representatives, once they come in the building, they’re trying to do their best for everybody in their district, Republican or Democrat,” Tusler said. “There’s things they can do. There’s things they can’t do, but they’re trying to help everybody. But I really think that this helps, not only for us once we’re in the building, the candidates prior to entering the building, to get them in the mindset that they’re not just representing a portion of their district. They represent everybody.” 

A final-five system is similar to ranked choice voting, however to reach the November election, candidates would still need to run in a primary. The top five vote getters from the primary would move on to the general. Once in the general, when voters cast their ballot, they would rank the candidates by preference from one to five (with the option to include all five or leave off as many candidates as they’d like). 

When the votes are counted, if one candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, that candidate wins. However if none of the candidates reaches that threshold, the rankings get used. The candidate with the lowest vote total is eliminated and all of the voters who selected that candidate as their top choice have their votes moved to their second choice and the votes are tallied again. If the 50% threshold is still not reached, the process continues, eliminating the lowest vote getter in each round, until a winner is decided. 

During five hours of testimony Tuesday, many of the speakers were in favor of the proposal, but those opposed raised concerns about the system being confusing for voters and claimed that the process amounts to “throwing out” people’s votes. A number of other state legislators have come out against the proposal, with some introducing a bill that would ban the system. 

Yet the bill also received some high profile support, including from former Republican Congressman Reid Ribble, who agreed with the bill’s authors that it could change the incentive system for members of Congress. 

Ribble said there are four groups benefiting from the current system: the two major parties, elected officials and the political operatives who run campaigns and think tanks. Changing the system could help prevent these groups from benefiting from dysfunction, he said. 

“If you’ve got beneficiaries, who’s the loser? Well, the loser’s primarily the voter, and equally important, I think America as a nation as well,” Ribble said. “So how do we change some of the incentives for all four of these folks? First of all, I believe we change the structure of voting to return power to all voters rather than just the very few highly motivated partisans that regularly vote in primaries. I recommend moving to final-five voting as one step. It’s not a panacea. It’s a step. It’s a move in progress in solving, or at least partially solving this problem.” 

Several speakers on Tuesday pointed to issues that have been debated in Congress for years with no resolution such as immigration and the federal deficit, noting that it’s not in the interest of elected members of Congress to find compromise on these issues because if they do, they risk losing a primary campaign. 

“Washington D.C. doesn’t solve problems,” Katherin Gehl, an advocate for final-five voting, said. “They don’t solve the deep, challenging problems that we all care about, like immigration, health care and the national debt. And it doesn’t solve problems because solving problems where nobody can get everything they want — in fact, solving complex problems where nobody can get everything, reaching a compromise solution that can be sustained, from administration to administration and paying for it — that’s a good way to lose in today’s system. Everybody does what it takes to get and to keep their jobs and elected officials are no different. Congresspeople are no different. We shouldn’t expect that they would [be]. So everything that we see in the current political system is because it’s a good way to win. And the purpose of final-five voting is to change how we hire and fire people.”

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Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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