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Ranked choice voting is growing in popularity. Here's what you need to know

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

One of the midterm races called in Nevada is a ballot initiative that moves the state another step closer to ranked choice voting. That's where you don't just vote for one candidate for one position, but a second or third choice as well. Voters in two states, Maine and Alaska, already vote that way. Nevada would be the biggest state yet to use ranked choice voting. Jessica Taylor is an editor at the Cook Political Report and she joins us now. Welcome to the program.

JESSICA TAYLOR: Hey, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So Nevada voters will have to confirm this amendment to their constitution in 2024. And if they do, it would take effect in 2026. At that point, if that happens, how would you win? It would be the person who's chosen as first the most - is that how you would win? Am I thinking about that correctly?

TAYLOR: No. So the ranked choice only goes into effect if no candidate gets a majority of the vote. So say you have candidates that finish at, you know, 45, 42. The lowest candidate then gets knocked off. And then the second place votes for each of the remaining candidates are then allocated.

RASCOE: Well, so what are the pros and cons?

TAYLOR: Well, one reason I think this is an interesting model is just simply because as our states have gotten and our - especially our congressional districts have gotten more polarized, fewer number of people are picking the winners because winners are chosen in primaries. So I look at - you know, I'm from East Tennessee, Tennessee's first district. And in 2020, we had an open seat for the first time in several years. Sixteen candidates ran in that primary, and the winner actually only ended up getting less than 20% of the vote. And that's a heavily Republican district. So winning the primary is tantamount to winning the general election. Now, all voters could vote in that, but still, you end up with someone who was elected by a very small plurality ending up going to the general election.

RASCOE: So what are the negatives? What's the argument against ranked choice voting?

TAYLOR: Well, then you would have voters that could meddle in either - in different primaries. They're going to say, well, Democrats are just going to get behind this candidate because they want a weaker candidate. In a way, it would really sort of erode how powerful the parties are.

RASCOE: Would there still be primaries or would - essentially there wouldn't be a primary because everyone can run in the main election and then everyone would just ranked choice them. Is that how that would work?

TAYLOR: No. You still have a primary that happens first, and at least with Alaska and Nevada here, if it ends up passing again in two years, they've combined sort of this jungle primary in a way with the runoff election. That jungle primary, that all-party primary is what California already does. So the top two candidates, regardless of party, advance to the November general election.

RASCOE: OK, OK. So you could end up where you have three Republicans, two Democrats or whatever, like a mix of people on the ballot.

TAYLOR: Yes. And that's what happened in the Alaska House special election earlier this year - Sarah Palin, of course, the most notable name there, running against Nick Begich. He's a Republican, but his family was a prominent Democratic family in the state. And then you had Mary Peltola, a more centrist Democrat, an Alaska native. And while Palin finished first, she did not get a majority of the vote. Begich's voters then were reallocated, and many of them, because they did not like Palin, voted for Peltola, and she ended up winning.

RASCOE: OK, so now I think I'm getting a better understanding of this. The Senate race in Nevada was a nail-biter. The Associated Press says Republican challenger Adam Laxalt can't catch up to Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, so she's been reelected. But what would that race have looked like under ranked choice voting?

TAYLOR: So Laxalt had a more conservative challenger that ran against him and sort of picked up late steam. But it wasn't enough. If this had been in effect, then he could have gone to the general election and it actually could have eroded Laxalt support and split the vote. And then how would his votes have been reallocated? So we can't really tell. But the goal then becomes to not just get voters to rank you first, but you have to make an appeal to, OK, you may like this candidate, but, like, let me be your second choice in a way. So, you know, I'm asked a lot when I'm speaking and traveling and talking to groups about what can we do about the partisanship in our politics, and I point to these reforms in Maine and Alaska and in Nevada, if this passes a second time, as one way that sort of could decrease the political fever.

RASCOE: That's Jessica Taylor of the Cook Political Report. Thank you so much for being with us.

TAYLOR: Thanks, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.