Every summer the South Dakota legislature commissions a limited number of studies that lead to possible legislation the following year. This year there was an abundance of ideas for possible topics to be studied, including studies on prison funding and design, property taxes and the legislature’s role in regulating artificial intelligence. Legislators were asked to rank their preferences 1 to 5 from their favorite to the least favorite.

Ranking seems like such a reasonable and intuitive way for people to express preferences when there are multiple options to choose from.

But wait a minute! Isn’t this the same legislature that banned ranking only last year?

National Republicans are Suspicious of Ranking

Nationally, the Republican party has generally been opposed to ranking since former VP candidate and Fox news pundit Sarah Palin lost her comeback election in Alaska. She couldn’t adjust her partisan pitch and broaden it to appeal to a wider group of voters. So, she failed in her bid for Alaska’s lone house seat. Since then, the party has worked to prohibit ranking in several red states. And our state’s Republican leaders were apparently an easy sell.

On March 21, 2023, Governor Kristi Noem signed a law prohibiting the use of ranked choice voting. In a Twitter post she said, “Ranked-Choice Voting will never be part of South Dakota elections.” Hmmm. Apparently, the ban doesn’t apply to the legislature.

But not all Republicans are toeing the line. In Virginia, the party used ranking at its convention to nominate competitive candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. All surprised their Democrat opponents with upset victories in the general election. Virginia Republicans apparently know that there’s a lot to like about ranking.

Ranking Doesn’t Favor One Party Over the Other

Ranked choice voting eliminates the spoiler effect, avoids the need for expensive runoff elections and promises to produce winners who reflect the will of the people. Ranking doesn’t benefit either political party more than the other. It doesn’t necessarily change who runs or who gets elected. But it does tend to improve candidate messaging and motivation.

The main champion of South Dakota’s 2023 ranking ban was state senator John Wiik, chairman of the state Republican party. In an email to me about my support of election reforms Wiik said, “I can only believe that destroying the Republican Party is your sole objective.” Nope. I am and always have been a Republican and do not want to hurt the party. But I believe our current voting systems should be improved.

If your definition of democracy is that you and your like-minded friends can vote, but you don’t care much about whether others can, what you really support is privilege. And if you think election reforms like ranking are a threat to your party, perhaps you need to reflect on why you fear that. The conservative party should be able to thrive in our state based on its ideas and policies, not rigged election systems.

Ranked Choice Voting Produces Popular Winners

Ranked choice voting is not a threat to the political parties. It is an election method in​ which voters rank candidates for an office in order of their preference (first choice, second choice, third choice, and so on). If a candidate receives more than half of the first choices, that candidate wins, just like in any other election. However, if there is no majority winner after counting the first choices, the race is decided by an instant runoff. The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and voters who ranked that candidate as their first choice will have their votes count for their next choice. This process continues until the majority winner, a candidate with more than half of the vote, wins.

Ranked choice voting eliminates the need for runoffs in multi-candidate elections. It also lowers the tone of the rhetoric in campaigns. Effective candidates learn to cooperate with similar candidates. That’s where candidate Palin stumbled in Alaska. Civility was apparently not part of her game plan.

Ranking Would Improve Local Elections in South Dakota

Ranking probably wouldn’t change much in SD’s statewide elections. Where it could be most valuable in our state is municipal elections where it is not uncommon to see three or more people vying for a single office. In Sioux Falls, for instance, mayoral elections can attract a half dozen candidates and historically there have been some odd results caused by the imperfect system currently being used.

At any rate, I am pleased to see that the South Dakota legislature is awakening to the idea that ranking can be an effective means for voters to express their preferences more fully when there are multiple choices.