RI primaries renew interest in preferential voting

Meanwhile, Brett Smiley won the Democratic primary for mayor of Providence with 41.9% of the vote, beating Gonzalo Cuervo with 36.2% and Nirva LaFortune with 21.9%.

Earlier this year, Rep. Rebecca Kislak, a Democrat from Providence, introduced a bill that would have created an instant form of ranked voting limited to General Assembly primaries with three or more candidates. The bill died in committee during the legislative session that ended in June.

But on Thursday, Kislak said she plans to reintroduce a preferential election bill after the General Assembly resumes in January.

In ranked elections, voters rank candidates from most preferred to least preferred. When the ranked ballots are tabulated, if a candidate gets a majority of votes, they win. But if no candidate wins a majority, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. If a voter’s first choice candidate is eliminated, their vote is counted towards their next choice. The process repeats itself until a candidate obtains the majority of votes.

“People feel better about their votes and more confident in the results if there are people governing us who are elected by the majority of the people,” she said. “I think people want to be sure their votes are meaningful, and ranked voting is one way to get us there.”

Kislak noted that his bill was limited to primaries in the General Assembly races, so it would not have changed the format of Providence’s governor’s and mayor’s primaries. She said the bill does not propose changes to the general election in part because that would likely require a state constitutional amendment.

Kislak said she introduced the bill after holding a community meeting last year and hearing voters call for a preferential vote.

She noted that Cambridge, Mass., has used ranked voting for more than 80 years, and now Maine, Alaska and New York City use ranked forms of voting.

“As we get more data on how ranked voting works, people are interested in seeing how it might work here,” Kislak said. “My goal is to get more people to engage and get involved in the process.”

Sen. Samuel D. Zurier, a Democrat from Providence, introduced a bill similar to Kislak’s last year, and he sponsored a resolution that created a Senate committee to study ranked ballot and second-in-command elections. round for the General Assembly and the General Officer primaries.

Zurier said he pursued the case in part because of his own election. In an October 2021 special election, Zurier won a five-person Democratic primary for the Senate seat vacated by Gayle L. Goldin with 31.4% of the vote, edging out Geena Pham with 24.6%, Bret Mr. Jacob with 22.3%, Hilary Levey Friedman with 15% and Ray Rickman with 6.7%.

“It lifted a cloud over my legitimacy as an elected official,” he said. “The last election raised questions about whether the district was so fragmented that people couldn’t agree on anything.”

On Tuesday, Zurier received 73.6% of the vote in a Democratic primary against Robin N. Xiong, and he said: “The result showed that the areas of agreement are broader and deeper than the areas on which we do not agree.”

But he noted that Rhode Island has seen other races where the winner received far less than a majority.

For example, Lincoln D. Chafee won the 2010 gubernatorial race with 36.1% of the vote, passing John F. Robitaille with 33.6%, Frank T. Caprio with 23%, and Ken Block with 6.5%.

Gina M. Raimondo won the 2014 gubernatorial race with 40.7% of the vote, edging out Allan W. Fung with 36.2% and Robert J. Healey Jr. with 21.4%.

And Myrth York won the 2002 Democratic primary for governor with 39% of the vote, beating out Sheldon Whitehouse with 38% and Antonio Pires with 22%.

Zurier said one criticism he had heard was that ranked voting could get complicated as the number of candidates increased. But he said the study commission will be organized in the next few months and envisages that it will result in a report which sets out the various options as well as the advantages and disadvantages. This would set up legislation for the following year, in time for the next statewide elections in 2026, he said.

“It may be time for that,” Zurier said. “We’ll have to see.”

In 2020, voters in Massachusetts rejected a ballot question on ranked voting. This movement had attracted millions of out-of-state supporters and backing from leading Massachusetts Democrats in hopes of reshaping the state’s electoral system. But the proposals drew criticism from the state’s Republican Party, conservative groups and Gov. Charlie Baker, who feared it would create another “layer of complication” for voters.

Common Cause Rhode Island executive director John M. Marion said campaign initiatives have led to preferential voting in Alaska and Maine, but Rhode Island does not allow campaign initiatives to produce ballot questions.

Common Cause was one of the organizations that led the effort to bring preferential-choice voting to New York City, and it supported Kislak’s legislation for preferential-choice voting.

Marion acknowledged that there were problems with the implementation of the New York City system, and he said that preferential choice voting was delaying final results in Alaska. But, he said, “the main benefit is that it achieves majority results and gives voters additional ways to express their support. Elections are no longer just a binary choice of support between this candidate and none of the others.

The pick ranking system leads to less negative publicity because candidates are incentivized to avoid alienating their opponents’ supporters, he said.

Tuesday’s primaries for governor and mayor of Providence are sparking renewed interest in preferential voting, Marion said. “So now is the perfect time for Senator Zurier’s task force to carefully consider what it would take for this to happen,” he said.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.

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