Last Saturday, Austin became the first city in Texas, and the second-largest city in the country, to adopt ranked-choice voting. The measure passed 59-41 in a low-turnout, off-cycle election. Seven of our ten city council districts favored RCV by a margin of 2-to-1. It was one of the most popular items on an eight-proposition-long ballot.
Austin’s successful ranked-choice voting campaign, which our organization led, is the latest in a string of victories for RCV. Ranked-choice voting has been on the ballot in seven cities in the last seven months, and it has prevailed in all seven. What explains this winning streak? Based on our experience, it’s a timely union of two factors: (1) a critical mass of voters has now experienced every problem in recent years that ranked-choice voting exists to solve; and (2) voters are more aware than ever of RCV’s potential as a solution.
No voter has been spared an experience with the failings of the traditional voting system. In the last several years, we’ve seen long ballots in both major parties’ presidential primaries, forcing some voters to choose between their head and their heart; we’ve seen broadly unpopular candidates emerge from plurality voting systems because of a small, but strong, group of supporters; we’ve seen high-profile, expensive, low-turnout runoff elections; and we’ve seen runaway polarization.
In Austin, where candidates for city office must earn at least 50% of the vote in our nonpartisan November elections to avoid a December runoff, we have had at least one runoff election in every municipal election cycle since 2014. These runoffs are expensive, costing the city hundreds of thousands of dollars per election. Turnout has been dismal, dropping an average of 40 percentage points between the November general election and the December runoff. And yet they have determined the course of our local democracy: eight of our eleven elected city officials first attained their position in a runoff election.
Meanwhile, we started to see ranked-choice voting in action across the country. Cable news anchors walked us through presidential caucuses that employed a preferential system. Maine adopted, implemented, and used its popular ranked-choice voting system, including for its highly contested Senate race in 2020. Even the Oscars switched to RCV. Ranked-choice voting now was more than academic – it was a tangible benefit already enjoyed by other voters from coast to coast, and we wanted it too.
When we launched our petition drive to put ranked-choice voting on the Austin ballot, our canvassers found that they rarely had to explain RCV to voters. Many already knew how it worked, and they were eager to sign our petition and share it with their friends and family.
We are at a tipping point. The threat to our democracy has rarely been greater, but the urgency among the electorate to defend and strengthen our electoral system is also as widespread as it has ever been. Now is the time for reformers in every city and state to act. You know this. You’re reading this because you care about making sure that our government and our democracy work. We’re here to tell you that you’re not alone. If you lace up your shoes, find allies in your community, and organize together for RCV and democracy reform, your fellow voters will join the fight, and you will win together.
Andrew Allison is the chair of Austinites for Progressive Reform.