Editorial: Charleston should back effort to allow ranked-choice voting

Post and Courier
December 16, 2023


We believe Charleston Mayor-elect William Cogswell still would be Charleston’s mayor-elect if the city had used a ranked-choice voting system this year rather than the traditional method, which involved both a general municipal election and then a runoff two weeks later; after all, Mr. Cogswell received the most votes the first time around, and more than two-thirds of those castling ballots on Nov. 7 preferred someone other than the incumbent John Tecklenburg.

And Mr. Tecklenburg agrees, too, telling The Post and Courier’s Ali Rockett that a ranked-choice system would not have led to a different result, so that adds credibility to one of his final acts as mayor: On Tuesday, Mr. Tecklenburg is asking City Council to adopt a resolution urging state lawmakers to give cities the choice of switching to a nonpartisan ranked-choice format. Council members should approve it and send a message to Columbia, because, as Mr. Tecklenburg notes, “It would simply have made the election process more convenient for voters and less expensive for taxpayers.”

Under ranked-choice voting (also known as instant runoff), voters rank their candidates in order of preference. If one candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, then that candidate wins, just like in all elections. But if no candidate is the first choice of more than 50% of the voters, the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated, and voters who picked that candidate then have their second-place votes counted. This process repeats itself until a candidate crosses the 50% mark.

This ranked-choice system — which South Carolina already allows to be used for its military and overseas voters — is not a legal option for cities and towns, despite its growing popularity in other states, from Utah to Maine.

Currently, the city of Charleston uses the next best option for nonpartisan races: a runoff between the top two vote getters two weeks later if no one crosses the 50% mark the first time. But this option has drawbacks of its own compared to ranked choice. This year, thousands of city voters had to make the effort to vote on Nov. 7 and again on Nov. 21, two days before Thanksgiving, while city taxpayers spent more than $105,000 on the second election.

A growing coalition is forming within our state to advocate for ranked-choice voting in municipal elections. On Thursday, leaders of Better Ballot SC, the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce, the League of Women Voters of South Carolina and S.C. Veterans for All Voters all gathered next to City Hall to thank Mr. Tecklenburg for submitting the resolution and urge City Council to adopt it.

Their message wasn’t just the time and money it saves voters and candidates, but also the promise of more positive campaigns. If candidates realize their path to victory is to appeal to as many voters as possible, including voters whose first choice is someone else, they should be motivated to run more positive, issue-oriented campaigns instead of flinging mud. And that in turn would help increase voter turnout. No one can know the degree to which this would happen, but it’s hard for us to imagine ranked-choice voting making the tenor of campaigns or voter turnout any worse.

We urge state lawmakers to pass House Bill 4022 during their upcoming session to give cities and towns this option, which promises to make things easier for not only voters and candidates but also taxpayers.

Even if they do that, it’ll still be up to council members and ultimately voters in each city and town to decide if ranked choice is the best system for them. Isn’t that ultimately how the decision should be made?


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