PROVIDENCE — Tuesday’s primary elections are sparking renewed interest in bringing ranked-choice voting to Rhode Island.
While the idea has been proposed before, it is gaining fresh momentum now that candidates have won primaries for two key positions — Rhode Island governor and Providence mayor — without securing a majority of the vote.
Governor Daniel J. McKee won the Democratic gubernatorial primary with 32.8 percent of the vote, topping Helena Buonanno Foulkes with 30 percent, Nellie M. Gorbea with 26.1 percent, Matt Brown with 7.9 percent, and Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz with 3.1 percent.
Meanwhile, Brett Smiley won the Democratic primary for Providence mayor with 41.9 percent of the vote, topping Gonzalo Cuervo with 36.2 percent and Nirva LaFortune with 21.9 percent.
Earlier this year, Representative Rebecca Kislak, a Providence Democrat, introduced a bill that would have created an instant runoff form of ranked-choice 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 ranked-choice election bill after the General Assembly reconvenes in January.
In ranked-choice elections, voters rank candidates from their most favorite to least favorite. When ranked choice ballots are tabulated, if a candidate receives a majority of votes, they win. But if no candidate gets 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 for their next choice. The process repeats until a candidate amasses a 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-choice voting is one way that possibly gets us there.”
Kislak noted that her bill was limited to primaries in General Assembly races, so it would not have changed the format for the gubernatorial and Providence mayoral primaries. She said the bill did not propose changes to general elections 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 constituents call for ranked-choice voting.
She noted Cambridge, Mass., has been using ranked-choice voting for more than 80 years, and now Maine, Alaska and New York City are using forms of ranked-choice voting.
“As we get more data on how ranked-choice voting works, people are interested in seeing how it might work here,” Kislak said. “My goal is whatever gets more people engaged and involved in the process.”
Senator Samuel D. Zurier, a Providence Democrat, introduced a bill similar to Kislak’s last year, and he sponsored a resolution that created a Senate commission to study ranked-choice voting and runoff elections for General Assembly and general officer primaries.
Zurier said he pursued the matter 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 percent of the vote, topping Geena Pham with 24.6 percent, Bret M. Jacob with 22.3 percent, Hilary Levey Friedman with 15 percent, and Ray Rickman with 6.7 percent.
“It raised 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 didn’t agree on anything.”
On Tuesday, Zurier received 73.6 percent of the vote in a Democratic primary against Robin N. Xiong, and he said, “The outcome showed the areas of agreements are broader and deeper than areas in which we disagree.”
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 governor’s race with 36.1 percent of the vote, topping John F. Robitaille with 33.6 percent, Frank T. Caprio with 23 percent, and Ken Block with 6.5 percent.
Gina M. Raimondo won the 2014 governor’s race with 40.7 percent of the vote, topping Allan W. Fung with 36.2 percent and Robert J. Healey Jr. with 21.4 percent.
And Myrth York won the 2002 Democratic primary for governor with 39 percent of the vote, topping Sheldon Whitehouse with 38 percent, and Antonio Pires with 22 percent.
Zurier said one criticism he has heard is that ranked-choice voting can get complicated as the number of candidates grows. But he said the study commission will be organized in the next few months, and envisions it resulting in a report that spells out various options and the pros and cons. That would tee up legislation for the following year, in time for the next statewide election in 2026, he said.
“It may be that the time has come for this,” Zurier said. “We’ll have to see.”
In 2020, Massachusetts voters rejected a ballot question on ranked-choice voting. That movement had drawn millions in out-of-state support and the backing of Massachusetts’ leading Democrats in the hopes of reshaping the state’s election system. But the proposals drew criticism from the state Republican Party, conservative groups, and Governor Charlie Baker, who feared it would create another “layer of complication” for voters.
Common Cause Rhode Island executive director John M. Marion said voter initiative drives led to ranked-choice voting in Alaska and Maine, but Rhode Island doesn’t allow voter initiatives to produce ballot questions.
Common Cause was one of the organizations that led the effort to bring ranked-choice voting to New York City, and it supported Kislak’s legislation for ranked-choice voting.
Marion acknowledged there were problems with the implementation of the New York City system, and he said ranked-choice voting delayed final results in Alaska. But, he said, “The chief benefit is that it results in majoritarian outcomes, and it 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 ranked-choice system leads to less negative advertising because candidates have an incentive to avoid alienating their opponents’ supporters, he said.
Tuesday’s primaries for governor and Providence mayor are prompting renewed interest in ranked-choice voting, Marion said. “So it’s a perfect time for Senator Zurier’s study commission to take a hard look at what it would take to make it happen,” he said.