Ranked-choice voting advocates empowered after CD1 primary results

GAVE AMO waves to supporters at an election results party after his win in the Democratic primary for Rhode Island's 1st Congressional District Sept. 5. Ranked-choice voting advocates claim their way of voting would have had the same outcome of the primary. / ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

Calls for voting reform grew to a roar in the days heading into Rhode Island’s competitive and crowded Democratic congressional primary. 

Now on the other side of the Sept. 5 election, the battle cry for ranked choice voting remains strong. 

But not because it would have changed the winner. 

In fact, proponents of the alternative voting method suspect that if used, ranked-choice voting would result in the same victor: Pawtucket’s Gabe Amo. 

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“The fact he was ahead by such a substantial amount and robust margin indicates Gabe would have won either way,” said Michael Garman, executive director of newly formed nonprofit Ocean State Ranked Choice Voting. 

That doesn’t diminish the importance of a ranked choice system in Garman’s eyes. 

In fact, that’s kind of the point: same winner, but with proof of a majority support. 

“So many people I’ve talked to, supporters of Gabe and not, would have been happier if he had a more conclusive mandate,” Garman said. 

In ranked-choice voting, voters rank the candidates in order of preference. If a candidate gets a majority of first-preference votes, the election is over and that candidate wins. If no one reaches 51% of the vote, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated from the race, and the next choice on that candidate’s voters’ ballots is reallocated and tallied. The process repeats until someone wins a majority. 

Amo captured nearly one-third of the votes in the primary, with a 3,000-vote lead over second-place finisher Aaron Regunberg, according to preliminary, unofficial results from the R.I. Board of Elections.  

While Regunberg appealed to the progressive lane, picking up endorsements from Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Amo highlighted his connections to more moderate Democrats, including President Joe Biden and former U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy. 

From a strictly ideological standpoint, Regunberg backers may not have picked Amo as their backup if given more choices. But voters who liked other moderate candidates, including fourth-place finisher Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, could have easily swayed toward Amo as a second choice.  

It’s hard to say for sure. Even Amo voters might have opted for a different candidate if they thought they could rank their choices, Garman said.  

But research shows so-called “come from behind” winners, in which the candidate who was not in the lead based on first choices, but ended up with a majority when backup choices were counted, are very rare. Just 6% of the 407 single-candidate, ranked-choice voting races held in other cities and states since 2004 ended up with a winner who did not also have the most first-round picks, according to an analysis by FairVote, a DC ranked-choice voting advocacy group. 

Research also shows the voting method discourages negative campaigning, since candidates have an incentive to work together to earn backup votes. 

Hardly the case in this primary, where personal attacks over family money, Super PAC funding, and alleged signature fraud dominated debate stages and inspired flurries of emailed press releases. 

“I know a good number of people who didn’t vote, or were reluctant to, because of the negativity,” Garman said. “I think we would have seen stronger turnout and more voter engagement if we had an environment in which candidates were focused on debating the issues.” 

While ranked-choice voting has faced opposition from candidates themselves in other races and places, at least five of the Democrats vying for the congressional seat, including Amo, supported the idea when asked at an Ocean State RCV kickoff event in August. 

Amo could not be reached for comment Thursday. 

But Sen. Sam Zurier, a Providence Democrat heading up a legislative panel focused on non-plurality voting methods, including ranked choice, took note of the candidates’ support. 

The study commission has concluded its public hearings, which included examination of results in previous, state primaries and elections. But Zurier anticipated the data from the Sept. 5 primary might still be incorporated into the panel’s forthcoming report and recommendations, which he expects to present in October. 

The study commission’s scope focused on how changes to voting could affect State House and general office races, not congressional ones. That’s not to say it couldn’t help in next year’s congressional election, when Amo (assuming he wins in November) may face challengers seeking to unseat the one-year freshman congressman. 

“There’s potential for a repeat of this chaotic, disorganized primary next year,” Garman said. “If there was ranked-choice voting and he could point to final results showing he had 50% support, it would put him in a position of much more strength.” 

As state lawmakers consider how to legislate voting reforms, others are already testing the waters, including members of the Newport Democratic City Committee. After inviting Garman to give a presentation on ranked-choice voting in mid-August, the committee’s 40 members used the voting method to choose which Democratic candidate to endorse, according to Ryan Patrick Kelley, committee vice-chairman. 

Ultimately, the test run didn’t go as planned. It ended with a tie between two candidates after seven rounds of choices being counted, according to Kelley. Committee bylaws require a majority vote to endorse, so the committee never ended up making an endorsement after all. 

Kelley did not want to say which two candidates tied, because he thought it was also a violation of committee rules.  

But Kelley didn’t see the experiment as a failure. Far from it, he said, adding that a tie is a very rare scenario especially when the voting pool is larger. 

“After watching Michael’s presentation, and having him answer questions, I could see everyone’s eyes kind of lit up about it,” he said. “It was really exciting.” 

As for whether the committee might try ranked-choice voting in future endorsements, Kelley said, “I can’t imagine we wouldn’t.” 

Nancy Lavin is a staff writer for the Rhode Island Current.

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