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Final-Five Voting has bipartisan support across the country. But status quo thinking is entrenched. Here are the arguments on both sides.

by The Badger Project, The Badger Project
January 18, 2024

A photo of a sign on the UW-Eau Claire campus
A sign on the UW-Eau Claire campus points voters where to cast their ballots in the 2020 Election. Photo by Jake Olson.

By Peter Cameron, THE BADGER PROJECT

Across the country, Final-Five Voting – a system that bans partisan primary elections and voters rank their preferred candidates in general elections – is gaining traction. But opposition, largely from the hard right, is significant.

That’s the landscape Wisconsin lawmakers are navigating as they consider a bipartisan Final-Five Voting bill here. Its passage in the current session is a longshot, insiders say.

What is it?

Final-Five Voting eliminates partisan primary elections. Instead, all candidates, no matter their party, run on the same primary ballot. Voters choose one candidate, and the top-five vote-getters move on to the general election.

That’s where voters rank the candidates from top preference to fifth. If a candidate gets a majority of the first-choice votes in the first round of the general election, that candidate wins. The election is done.

If no candidate wins a majority in the first round, the fifth-place candidate is removed from the race. Voters who ranked that candidate first then have their tally for their second-ranked choice counted as a first-place vote for that candidate.

These “instant runoffs” continue to winnow the field until one candidate garners a majority of the vote.

The goal is to encourage candidates to appeal to a wide range of voters – rather than a narrow bloc of hardcore voters in a partisan primary – and effectively serve all, or at least a majority of, constituents once the candidates are in office.

Where the momentum is

Final-Five lessens the power of the two dominant political parties, experts say.

Perhaps for that reason, a similar, Final-Four system has proven popular with voters in independent-minded Alaska, which established the process in 2022. If Nevada voters approve a Final-Five ballot initiative this year, that state will enact the system, too.

Efforts to move toward Final-Five or ranked-choice voting are underway in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho and Oregon as well. And places like New York City and the state of Maine already use ranked-choice voting.

Alaska’s Final-Four system has worked as intended, Alaska Senate Majority Leader Cathy Giessel said at a public hearing in January at the Wisconsin Capitol. The “Last Frontier” state’s new system is incentivizing compromise and accomplishment among elected officials and rewarding civility, said Giessel, a Republican.

Pushback

Despite bipartisan support and momentum elsewhere, Wisconsin’s Final-Five bill, which would only apply to elections for Congress, is treading water. The legislature appears likely to undergo another redistricting process before the 2024 election, and legislators are unwilling to do anything major before that, insiders say. A bill in the legislature would also effectively ban Final-Five Voting.

A photo of Ed Miller, UW-Stevens Point political science professor emeritus
Ed Miller, UW-Stevens Point political science professor emeritus

Across the U.S., five states — Florida, Tennessee, Idaho, Montana and South Dakota — all run by Republicans, have banned ranked-choice voting. Idaho voters are fighting back by mounting a petition drive for an Open Primaries referendum on the 2024 ballot.

Even in Alaska, a Republican-led movement in the state Assembly is trying to switch back to the old voting system, said Chanda Meek, a political science professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Much of the resistance to Final-Five Voting emanates from the hard right, despite significant mainstream Republican support for the reform.

Final-Five’s inherent moderation of extreme political views make it particularly threatening to the political extremes – especially the hard-right bloc that in recent years has exerted powerful influence on the Republican Party, said Ed Miller, a political science professor emeritus at UW-Stevens Point. For that reason, Miller said, the right may be more hostile to Final-Five Voting than politicians on the left.

“While some Democrats are of course very liberal, the bulk of the party remains moderate,” he said. “Thus, they favor ranked-choice voting with less fear that they would lose votes to liberal, third-party candidates in a general election, e.g. the Green Party.”

Wisconsin freshman state Rep. Ty Bodden, a Republican from Hilbert in Calumet County, has introduced a bill banning Final-Five Voting in Wisconsin. Before winning a seat in the state Assembly in 2022, Bodden worked as a legislative researcher for The New American, a magazine owned by the right-wing John Birch Society.

“Final-Five and ranked-choice voting have proven disastrous for elections nationwide, causing prolonged result announcements when trust in election outcomes is already fragile,” Bodden said in a December press release announcing the bill.

That’s a mischaracterization.

State Rep. Ty Bodden, a Republican from Calumet County, has introduced a bill that would effectively ban Final-Five Voting in the state.

Final-Five Voting does not yet exist anywhere in the U.S. Alaska’s Final-Four is the closest iteration.

And election experts note that state laws requiring waiting periods before the tabulation of absentee ballots – not ranked-choice voting – are the main reason for vote-counting delays in some states, like Alaska.

Simple or confusing?

Critics also say ranked-choice voting is complicated, leading to voter confusion.

But 85% of voters in Alaska reported ranked-choice voting to be “simple,” according to one exit poll.

And surveys have found that people generally like ranked-choice voting and find it to be relatively easy.

The Republican-leaning county Utah County, second-largest in Utah, uses ranked-choice voting to elect its candidates. 

Josh Daniels, a Republican who oversaw elections as Utah County clerk, told the January hearing at the Wisconsin Capitol that the system isn’t slower than others when counting ballots, and is relatively simple for voters to use.

“Our takeaway was that this wasn’t confusing,” Daniels said, ”It wasn’t problematic. It wasn’t any more problematic than other balloting.”

Bodden noted vote-counting delays in Milwaukee County, which have led to shifts in statewide vote totals in recent elections, are evidence that introducing ranked-choice voting in Wisconsin is “impractical,” he said in the release.

But the Cream City’s counting often is delayed by a state law requiring election clerks to wait for the polls to close on Election Day before opening absentee ballots. A bill working its way through the Wisconsin State Legislature is designed to fix the problem by allowing clerks to start processing ballots the day before the election.

And plenty in the GOP see the benefits of Final-Five. U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Republican from the Green Bay area, is a vocal supporter, as is his predecessor, former Congressman Reid Ribble.

Giessel, the Alaska state senator, said at the hearing in Madison that she had initially and publicly opposed the launch of the system in Alaska.

After seeing Final-Four in action, and winning an election under that system, Giessel said she is leading a bipartisan coalition in the Alaska State Senate that includes most Republicans and all the Democrats.

The only members who haven’t joined, she said, are three hard-right Republicans.

The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.

This article first appeared on The Badger Project and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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