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Group hopes to amend Missouri constitution to enact ranked-choice voting

Initiative petition would ask voters in 2022 to ditch the current primary system, along with a trio of other election reforms

An effort to do away with partisan primaries in Missouri and replace them with a “ranked choice” method got a big boost last week, receiving roughly $670,000 from a Virginia-based nonprofit hoping to put the idea on the 2022 statewide ballot.

A group called Better Elections is pushing an initiative petition that would amend Missouri’s constitution to allow all voters to vote for any candidate in a combined primary. 

The four candidates in the primary with the most votes would advance to the general election, regardless of party. Then in the general election, voters would be allowed to rank those four candidates from first choice to last — or just vote for their first choice.

The change would apply to elections for statewide office, the Missouri General Assembly and U.S. Congress. Two versions of the initiative petition have been approved by the Secretary of State’s Office to begin collecting signatures.

“Our proposal would free voters from the pressure to choose the ‘lesser of two evils,’ allowing them a better opportunity to support the candidates they really believe in,” said David Roland, an attorney and government transparency advocate helping lead the effort. 

In addition to the ranked-choice system, the initiative petition would also ask voters to require all electronic voting machines be tested and certified before use; require a paper trail of individual votes in every election; and require that representatives of all political parties be present whenever paper ballots are counted or placed in storage.

A similar system was adopted in Alaska last year. A modified version of the plan, where the top two vote-getters in a primary face off in the general election regardless of party, was used for the first time earlier this year in St. Louis. 

Similarly, 15 states now have open primaries, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. More have partially open primaries. The version used across California is known as a “jungle primary” — all candidates appear on the primary ballot and the top two finishers advance to the general, regardless of political party.

“I’ve long been frustrated that our current system seems to be increasing the polarization of Missouri politics and consistently generating nominees who do not necessarily enjoy the support of a broad swath of this state’s voters,” Roland said. 

Proponents of the idea have long argued that the ranked-choice method disincentivizes strategic voting, where someone votes not for their preferred candidate but for someone with a better chance of beating their least favorite candidate.  

John Bowman, president of the St. Louis County NAACP, said the proposed constitutional amendment would give Missourians more power and make politicians more accountable to voters. 

“Having more choices is good in every part of life, and we certainly need more of that in politics,” he said. “ It’s time to take back control as voters.”

Last week, Better Elections received a $670,000 donation from Article IV, a 501c4 nonprofit based in Virginia that purports to “​​further the common good and general welfare by educating the public about policies that implicate the democratic process, including electoral systems and redistricting, and to advocate for reform.”

Because Article IV is a nonprofit, it is not required to disclose its donors. 

Roland said the nonprofit worked with grassroots efforts around the country to “identify and advance common-sense solutions to otherwise intractable problems. 

“They have been an indispensable partner in our effort to improve the integrity of our elections by giving voters more power to choose who represents us in government,” he said. “I am very hopeful that their support will help us get this issue on the ballot.”

This article by Jason Hancock is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.

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