Conservative groups bash effort to allow ranked-choice voting

Post & Courier
January 26, 2024

By Nick Reynolds

COLUMBIA — South Carolina lawmakers are considering bipartisan legislation to allow municipalities the option to adopt a ranked-choice “instant runoff” system to elect some local offices amid concerns over high-cost, low-turnout runoff elections some communities face each year.

The bill, sponsored by Columbia Democratic Rep. Jermaine Johnson and Easley Republican Rep. Neal Collins, seeks to allow voters in municipal elections to “rank” their preferred candidates for positions like mayor or city council, with a winner declared out of the consensus top choice.

Some, however, see issues with the method, among them being a depiction of the bill as an effort to prevent former President Donald Trump from winning in the 2024 presidential election.

Currently, if a candidate in any election across the state finishes with less than half of the popular vote in a primary or general election, the top two candidates in the race then proceed to a runoff election, where the top vote-getter wins. While such a contest results in a clear winner, those elections often see significantly less turnout than the election before it, proponents say. And even with fewer participants, the municipality still has to pay full cost to run it.

“It saves money, bottom line,” said Frank Knapp Jr., president and CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce. “That’s why we just fell in love with it.”

It also promotes civility in politics, said Chris Saxman, a former Republican member of the Virginia House of Delegates from 2002 to 2010.

In 2020, the Virginia Republican Party implemented ranked-choice voting among its electorate to select a consensus candidate to lead the party, ultimately producing the state’s first Republican governor in more than a decade in Glenn Youngkin. During the process, Saxman said, candidates found they had to spend more time convincing voters why their policies made them a top choice, rather than convincing voters why their rival was an unacceptable option.

“Because they weren’t able to attack each other as viciously in an effort to set up a binary construct, this created more civility, and forced people to focus on the issues rather than their personalities,” Saxman told members of the South Carolina House Judiciary Constitutional Laws Subcommittee on Jan. 25.

That feature of the process, however, is why some people disliked it.

Ahead of the Jan. 25 hearing, influencers in South Carolina conservative politics like former Horry County Executive Committee Chairman Chad Caton worked to organize an effort to oppose the bill, describing the method as a possible push by corporate interests to prevent Trump from winning in the 2024 presidential election.

“This is what the Democrats and the uniparty are using to get rid of our normal way of voting,” Caton said in a video posted to social media encouraging people to speak against the bill.

Backers say that while voters may not get their first choice of candidate in a multi-candidate race, it considers their voice in a larger pool of votes that produces a compromise, consensus candidate that encompasses all perspectives via one single ballot.

But conservative groups are leery.

One speaker, representing the conservative election integrity organization SC Safe Vote, said the system was inherently designed to ensure minority voices are the ones who get elected. One other speaker cited a recent U.S. House election in Alaska, where popular Republican Nick Begich was ultimately defeated by Democrat Mary Peltola in a ranked-choice election some believed to be flawed.

Others argued that the effort could disenfranchise voters who could not understand the ballot, seemingly comparing it to the literacy tests deployed to keep Black voters from voting during the Jim Crow era.

“We haven’t seen anything like this since Jim Crow laws, something that is harming American citizens’ ability to vote easily and freely,” said Michael Alfaro, a fundraiser for Donald Trump and recent South Carolina transplant who testified against the bill.

Backers of the changes disagree. Numerous polls in places that have tried ranked-choice voting found the vast majority of voters found it easy to understand, according to research compiled by the advocacy group FairVote. Countries like Australia have successfully used the method for years, they said. And elections that use ranked-choice voting, they say, often have better turnout — primarily because more people begin to believe their vote will start to count.

“The way we run our elections feels like an illusion,” said Clint Eisenhauer, a former official with the South Carolina Ports Authority who now works as the state lead for the centrist Forward Party. “What this does is it begins to bring us back to restoring the reason that we vote.

“That’s the reason for me to be involved in this,” he added. “It’s the realization that choice is an illusion in our elections.”


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