No city in Florida has ever fully enacted instant runoffs. Now the Legislature may outlaw the voting methodology before anyone gets the chance.
Sen. Travis Hutson, a Palm Coast Republican, has filed an elections package that would, among other things, eliminate ranked-choice voting (RCV) in Florida.
“I don’t think you should be numbering and ranking people on the ballot,” he said. “One person should win, or if there is a runoff you should go to a top two.”
While that won’t have much effect on state elections, all of which by statute are decided by winner-takes-all Primary and General elections, Florida municipalities can and do employ a variety of election methods for picking city officials.
Yet, only one Florida city has ever jumped on the RCV bandwagon and approved an instant runoff system. Sarasota voters in 2007 approved a charter amendment that called for ranked-choice ballots whenever the state Division of Elections certified a system for use. More than 77.6% of voters endorsed the measure.
The idea is that costly runoffs can be eliminated by directing voters to vote not just for their favorite candidate, but to rank their choices in order. From there, elections officials would tabulate votes and figure out which candidates should advance to a runoff. But rather than holding a new election, voter preferences on the ballot would be taken into account.
Any voter whose top choice was eliminated would have their ballot cast in a second tabulation for the candidate they ranked the next highest. Some systems of ranking will apply those votes in a multistep process, knocking out the lowest vote-getting candidates one at a time and reapplying second choices to the next eligible candidate each time.
“It is effectively the same as having a runoff election except that voters only need to fill out a ballot once,” explained David Angel, general counsel for the group Rank My Vote Florida.
But 14 years after Sarasota approved such an election process, nothing has come of it yet. City Attorney Robert Fournier said the Secretary of State and Division of Elections have resisted certifying the software for legal use. If Hutson’s law passes, state elections officials won’t be allowed to give such an OK.
“The charter amendment also said there was no obligation or duty to pursue certification of the charter amendment,” Fournier noted.
Still, the City Commission in September did vote to pursue a lawsuit against the state, working with Rank My Vote. However, officials quickly backed off that, deciding the issue needed further study.
But Fournier said with the pending legislation — which, if it became law, would preempt city charter language — all talk in Sarasota about instant runoffs has temporarily come to a halt.
That said, other larger cities started flirting with the process before Hutson’s bill was filed. The Clearwater City Council in June voted to begin work on their own ranked-choice voting charter amendment. That was done in response to the election of Council member Mark Bunk winning a five-candidate race with 27% of the vote. Bunk notably voted against exploring instant runoffs.
When Hutson heard of cities in Southwest Florida considering ranking candidates on ballots, it caught him off guard. He had no idea such a system was even legal in Florida, but in a conversation with Secretary of State Laurel Lee, he learned cities absolutely could change their charters to call for instant runoffs. So Hutson filed language to change that.
He notably included it in a broader bill that would also raise a cap on candidate reporting fines and allow for elections supervisors to have two more early voting sites.