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Oregon State University Boosts Turnout With Ranked Choice Voting

by Ben Petit // Published May 2, 2014
oregon state university office

Students at Oregon State University, one of Oregon’s largest universities, turned out in record numbers to vote in the student government’s first ranked choice election (RCV) taking place from April 15-18th. After 9 rounds of counting, Oregon State University undergrads elected Taylor Sarman and Bryan Williamson as President and Vice-president of the Associated Students (ASOSU) in a race that drew over 3,300 student voters to the polls. The results were announced on April 20th in the student newspaper The Barometer.

Jacob Vandever, who holds the title of Associated Students Assistant to the Advocate, proposed the switch to RCV (which the ASOSU calls instant runoff voting) last fall as a way to boost turnout, increase participation, and ensure the winning candidate has support from a broad base of voters. The result was a doubling of voter turnout in comparison to last year's general election, more inclusive campaigns, and a widely supported president-elect. It's clear Oregon State reached, and even surpassed, its goals for RCV.

Previously, Oregon State used a two-round process with a primary election where the top two candidates advanced to the general election. Vandever says the process had a negative impact on turnout and participation, “There was a big drop off between the amount of people who voted in our primary election and the people who voted in our general elections.” Turnout in last year’s election fell from just 9.6% in the primary to only 6.7% in the general election. With a growing number of schools switching to RCV to boost voter turnout, Oregon State is just one great example of how RCV is able to bring more students to the polls. In another RCV debut last week, students at Humboldt State University doubled turnout rates from the previous year’s runoff election.

By adopting RCV to replace conventional runoff systems, student governments are also creating a more inclusive campaign process. “With the new instant runoff system...candidates are going out and talking to people that they otherwise would have ignored,” says Vandever. In an interview with The Barometer, he commented that RCV “really forces candidates to branch out and talk to people they otherwise wouldn’t, instead of getting comfortable within their constituencies.”

In too many student elections, winners can easily be determined by who has the most name recognition on campus. Thanks to RCV, says Vandever, candidates reached out to a broader range of voters because “it’s worthwhile to be their second choice.” With three major candidates each claiming over 20% of the first-choice support, presidential contenders needed to seek backup support from the entire campus community in order to win. If the election had been decided by a simple plurality, Sarman would have won with just 37%, a difference of only 169 voters over runner-up Anderson Duboise. In the following rounds of counting, Sarman’s lead continued to grow. After third place candidate Brendan Sanders was eliminated in the eighth round of counting, Sarman won with 54% of the active ballots. Sarman was able to secure a very large base of first-choice support, but by campaigning beyond that base, Sarman won the election with support from a much broader base of students.

Over 50 colleges and universities now use ranked choice voting to elect their representatives. With over 26,000 students, Oregon State is one of the largest institutions. With innovations in elections that set an example for the rest of the country, the work of schools like Oregon State shows RCV can play a role in bringing voters to the polls, making more voices heard, and ensuring that every vote counts.