By Kyle Herman
Over the past year, my home state Ohio has earned a reputation as the most corrupt state in America.
Ohio’s legislators were bribed with at least $63 million in exchange for $1.3 billion in nuclear and coal subsidies, which federal prosecutors described as “the largest bribery, money-laundering scheme against the people of the state of Ohio.” Additionally, city council members have been arrested for pay-to-play schemes in several of Ohio’s largest municipalities. At both levels of government, one-party rule has emboldened politicians to enrich themselves at taxpayers’ expense because without competitive elections, they know that neither they nor their party will be held accountable. But one simple change could give Ohioans more choices and make elections more competitive at all levels of government: ranked choice voting.
Many voters have been unhappy with their options at some point, and if you ever felt like elections were corrupted by limited choices, that’s by design. Restrictive ballot access rules limit who is allowed to compete, and choices are further limited by perceptions of “electability” in our two-party system. Elections in Ohio can be won with only a plurality (a fraction of the vote, like 37% in a recent primary), rather than a majority (more than 50%), so any candidate that joins a race with two or more people risks being a “spoiler” by splitting votes with their most similar competitor. That creates perverse rationalizations: Both Democrats and Republicans rally around their nominees and try to exclude competition—even if that means turning a blind eye to their nominees’ flaws or finding ways to justify corruption—because they’re afraid the “other side” will win if they admit the problems on their own side.
RCV can help solve that by allowing voters to rank their true preferences, including who they perceive as the least-corrupt candidates, so that more candidates can challenge corrupt incumbents without splitting votes. Through the instant-runoff process enabled by RCV, challengers can combine forces by endorsing each other as second or third choices in order to reach a majority to hold corrupt politicians accountable.
Take Ohio’s FirstEnergy bribery scandal as an example: The Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives, Larry Householder, was indicted for accepting tens of millions of dollars from Ohio’s largest electric utility and funneling bribes through a dark money group for personal and partisan purposes, including payments to his political allies. Although he was replaced as Speaker, Householder was already running unopposed in his gerrymandered district at the time of his indictment, and he won re-election to his seat in 2020 as the only candidate on the ballot. If Ohio used RCV, more candidates would have been able to run against Householder, including from his own party or his own end of the political spectrum, without splitting votes. That way, RCV would have given voters more choices and more chances to replace their indicted incumbent.
While Householder served as the face of the scandal, his payoffs were just the tip of the larger problem of dark money exploited by FirstEnergy, which admitted to funneling funds to other groups. At least 21 state representatives received donations from FirstEnergy, and all but one of them voted for House Bill 6 (HB6), which slashed subsidies for renewable energy and gave FirstEnergy a billion-dollar bailout for dirty power plants at the expense of taxpayers and ratepayers. More than a year after the corrupt dealings came to light, these politicians have refused to repeal all of HB6, and there is no indication that they will face political consequences because they run in non-competitive districts. RCV would help make districts more competitive because more challengers could run to hold politicians accountable without being perceived as “spoilers.”
It’s not just Republicans at the state level who have been caught in the act of corruption. Since last summer, Democrats in multiple cities have been arrested as well: city council members in Toledo, Cincinnati, and Cleveland have all been charged by the Department of Justice. At all levels of government, Ohio politicians use dirty money to limit competition in order to stay in power.
No matter where you are on the political spectrum, RCV would empower you to vote your conscience for candidates who align best with your values—including transparency and accountability—without feeling like you need to excuse corrupt behavior just to justify beating an opposing party at a zero-sum game. RCV helps level the playing field to give voters more choices and more chances for people-powered campaigns to compete against big money and corrupt special interests. You can help put more power in the hands of the people to hold politicians accountable with RCV by supporting Rank the Vote Ohio or similar groups in other states.
Kyle Herman is a co-founder and co-executive director of Rank the Vote Ohio. He has experience working for elected officials at the local and national levels and is currently working for an international nonprofit on democracy assistance programs aimed at increasing transparency and accountability in foreign countries. Kyle is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Rank the Vote, its members, supporters, funders, or affiliates.