By Dan Sally
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a sweeping bill in April designed to address Republican concerns over election integrity. The bill requires election supervisors to clean their voter rolls annually, restricting the practice of “ballot harvesting,” and making headlines with the creation of the Office of Election Crimes and Security—an extension of the executive branch with the power to investigate claims of voting irregularities.
Buried in the bill was a clause banning the use of Ranked Choice Voting in the state.
This puzzled some, as the state’s constitution is one of the few in America that specifies a plurality system of elections for statewide and federal offices. For John Severini and others at Rank My Vote Florida, an organization that’s been promoting ranked choice voting in the state since 2019, the bill represents a setback, but also an opportunity to bring more voters into the fold.
A Movement that Started Locally
Ranked choice voting was first introduced to the state in 2007, when 77.6% of voters in Sarasota approved a measure to use it in their mayoral elections. Sarasota uses a runoff system, where a second election is held for the top two candidates if no candidate crosses the 50% threshold in the first round.
This led to a system neither voters nor candidates liked.
“It’s arduous to run a political campaign, it’s costly, the candidates don’t enjoy running a second time, and the voters don’t like having to go to the polls [again],” Severini said. As important, eliminating the runoff election via ranked choice voting would save the city $100,000.
The city’s voting machines lacked the ability to process ranked choice ballots at the time, so the issue lay dormant until the city purchased new machines in 2015. As they began to implement it, other cities began to reach out to Severini and his colleagues looking for advice on how to do the same in their city, and for much the same reasons. “In Gainesville it cost $500,000 for their runoff,” Severini noted.
As the cities of Clearwater and Gainesville joined Sarasota in seeking to switch to RCV for their mayoral elections, Rank My Vote Florida was formed with the goal of getting permission from Florida’s Secretary of State. Severini and his colleagues felt their request steered clear of any partisan landmines, as they were focused exclusively on municipal elections.
“City elections are non-partisan,” said Severini. “You’re not wearing a red or blue jersey.”
A setback, and an opportunity
Unfortunately for Rank My Vote Florida, the growing popularity of ranked choice both in and outside of Florida forced the state government to take up the issue. “I think we put the state in an awkward position,” said Severini, “it wasn’t that they opposed ranked choice voting—they just didn’t know enough about it to support it.”
While it would be easy to slam the governor and Republican legislators for sinking this initiative in a party line vote, for Severini, it presents an opportunity to grow their coalition. In a 50/50 state like Florida, it’s essential that any reform has bipartisan support.
“Education is the number one tool we have,” he said. “I think the way we get them there is to point to other states that have embraced ranked choice voting.”
He cites the recent Republican primary in Virginia as an example. While Virginia implemented RCV over concerns of COVID, the GOP nominated two candidates who took the governor’s mansion and attorney general’s office for the first time in 20 years.
Severini also cited Stan Lockhart, former head of the Utah GOP, who became an ardent supporter of RCV after seeing its success in his home state.
Aside from success stories, the cost savings and increased competition RCV brings in elections appeal to two core conservative principles and are likely to encourage more Republican voters to support the cause.
“I don’t care which side of the fence you sit on,” Severini said, “competition is a good thing.”
Dan Sally serves on the Digital Strategy Council of Rank the Vote and is host of the podcast ‘You Don’t Have to Yell’, which discusses today’s most pressing issues without the partisan spin.
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.