Where To Bring Ranked Choice Voting in Oregon

Research report


The roilings of the two dominant political parties by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have more in common than “voter anger.” Both stem from serious defects in our plurality voting system: vote splitting and spoilers.

In plurality voting a voter can choose only one candidate for an office, and whichever candidate gets the most votes wins. In the Republican primaries votes are being split between multiple similar candidates, thus allowing a very different candidate—Donald Trump—to come out the winner with a minority of the votes. (As of Super Tuesday he’s been receiving from 21.3% to 49.3% of the vote, averaging 34.6%.)

Because of vote splitting, candidates are usually pressured to drop out of the race and not be a “spoiler” for “taking away” votes from another candidate. To avoid being a spoiler in the general election, Bernie Sanders is running for the Democratic Party’s nomination instead of running as an independent. However, insurgent campaigns like Sanders’ risk resentments between the insurgents and the party regulars, antagonizing those who would otherwise be allies against a common enemy.

The vote splitting and spoiler defects are common in elections at various levels in the United States, most of which use plurality voting. But there are alternative democratic voting systems, one of which is ranked choice voting (RCV), also known as instant runoff voting. RCV can lessen the vote splitting and spoiler problems and has been slowly spreading to cities and counties across the U.S.

What are the opportunities for bringing RCV to elections in Oregon? This report identifies which elected offices in Oregon would be capable of being filled by RCV given current election technology.

How Ranked Choice Voting Works

In RCV a candidate needs a majority (more than half the votes), not simply a plurality (the most votes), to win. To insure a majority winner it allows voters to rank-order the candidates in order of preference. All of the first-choice votes are counted, and if a candidate has a majority that candidate wins. But if no candidate gets a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and those votes are redistributed to each voter’s next choice. This process of counting, elimination, and redistribution is repeated until a candidate gets a majority of the votes.

Vote splitting is less of a problem with RCV, because no candidate can win without majority support. If voters with similar views split their votes and fracture a potential majority, their next choice votes will bring their votes back together across the rounds of candidate elimination and vote redistribution until a majority emerges. (There are exceptions in unusual circumstances.)

Election Technology

Unless RCV is conducted by sorting and counting paper ballots by hand, which in many elections can be a time-consuming and labor-intensive process, the machines used to record, aggregate, and report voting results need to have specific capabilities to run an RCV election.

The Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) established new standards for machines used in federal elections and provided financial incentives for states to upgrade from old mechanical election machines to electronic ones. Electronic election machines were not originally designed to handle RCV, although some companies are now offering or developing such machines. Election machines have to have two capabilities to conduct an election using RCV.

First, the machines must be able to record each ballot as a complete record so that various candidate rankings for an elected office can be linked together. This is called saving a “cast vote record.” Second, the machines must be capable of exporting the information from the ballots to a data processing software such as Microsoft Excel. This is so that the process of counting votes, eliminating candidates, and redistributing votes can be done by computer.

According to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice, the core components of electronic election machines are expected to have a lifespan of ten to twenty years, most likely on the shorter side. Electronic machines purchased before or in the wake of HAVA are now reaching or exceeding ten years of age. Over the next decade older machines will need to be replaced and many counties are already replacing theirs.

The Situation in Oregon

Many Oregon counties have already begun replacing their electronic machines with newer models, and the rest of the counties are likely to replace their machines within the next ten years. The decision of which machines to purchase, and what the state standards for certifying machines are, will therefore impact the state’s capacity to institute RCV for many years to come.

Last fall I did a survey of Oregon counties to determine which have recently replaced their election machines and which models they have replaced them with. Along with information obtained from the Secretary of State’s office, the results show that several counties have replaced their machines with RCV-capable models, although most counties still have older non-RCV-capable machines.

The breakdown is as follows:

Benton, Clackamas, and Lane counties have RCV-capable machines. Benton and Lane have the new ES&S 850 machines with an EVS system, and Clackamas has the new Hart Verity system.

Clatsop, Curry, Harney, Jackson, Josephine, Marion, Multnomah, Tillamook and Yamhill might have RCV-capable machines. Clatsop, Jackson, and Tillamook have the ES&S 850 machines, but I am uncertain whether they are part of the RCV-capable EVS system or the non-RCV-capable Unity system. If the latter, an upgrade might be possible. Curry, Marion, and Yamhill had the older Hart Voting System, but all three expressed the intention of replacing them with the RCV-capable Hart Verity system, with two of them intending to do this before the November 2016 elections. A Hart representative also informed me that the older system could report data in a form useable in an RCV election, depending on the specific RCV rules adopted. Harney, Josephine, and Multnomah had recently obtained the new Clear Ballot machines, whose RCV-capability I have been unable to determine.

The other Oregon 24 counties had older non-RCV-capable machines at the time of the survey. These counties will likely replace their machines within the next 10 years, the timing depending primarily on budgetary issues.

Opportunities for Instituting RCV

In the 3 counties with RCV-capable machines, and perhaps in up to 9 other counties, it is now technologically feasible to implement RCV for any elected office representing a district included within the county borders. This would include all county, city, and other local elected offices in that county.

It would also include state offices representing districts within county boundaries. From the RCV-capable counties, these would be:

House District 8, Lane (Paul Holvey, incumbent)
House District 12, Lane (John Lively)
House District 13, Lane (Nancy Nathanson)
House District 14, Lane (Val Hoyle)
House District 16, Benton (Dan Rayfield)
House District 39, Clackamas (Bill Kennemer)
House District 40, Clackamas (Brent Barton)
Senate District 7, Lane (Chris Edwards)

The total is 7 of the 60 House Districts, and 1 of the 30 Senate Districts. In the other 9 counties which might have RCV-capable machines, there would be:

House District 3, Josephine (Carl Wilson)
House District 5, Jackson (Peter Buckley)
House District 6, Jackson (Sal Esquivel)
House District 19, Marion (Jodi L. Hack)
House District 21, Marion (Brian L. Clem)
House District 22, Marion (Betty Komp)
House District 25, Marion (Bill Post)
House District 36, Multnomah (Jennifer Williamson)
House District 42, Multnomah (Rob Nosse)
House District 43, Multnomah (Lew Frederick)
House District 44, Multnomah (Tina Kotek)
House District 45, Multnomah (Barbara Smith)
House District 46, Multnomah (Alissa Keny-Guyer)
House District 47, Multnomah (Jessica Vega)
House District 49, Multnomah (Chris Gorsek)
House District 50, Multnomah (Carla C. Piluso)
Senate District 3, Jackson (Alan Bates)
Senate District 11, Marion (Peter Courtney)
Senate District 22, Multnomah (Chip Shields)
Senate District 23, Multnomah (Michael E. Dembrow)
Senate District 25, Multnomah (Laurie Monnes)

That would bring it up to 23 of the 60 House Districts, and 6 of the 30 Senate Districts.

It should also be feasible to institute RCV for offices representing districts whose boundaries overlap two RCV-capable counties. These could include:

House District 4, Jackson and Josephine (Duane A. Stark)
House District 18, Clackamas and Marion (Vic Gilliam)
House District 38, Clackamas and Multnomah (Ann Lininger)
House District 41, Clackamas and Multnomah (Kathleen Taylor)
House District 48, Clackamas and Multnomah (Jeff Reardon)
House District 51, Clackamas and Multnomah (Shemia Fagan)
Senate District 2, Jackson and Josephine (Herman Baertschiger, Jr.)
Senate District 19, Clackamas and Multnomah (Richard Devlin)
Senate District 20, Clackamas and Multnomah (Alan R. Olsen)
Senate District 21, Clackamas and Multnomah (Diane Rosenbaum)
Senate District 24, Clackamas and Multnomah (Rod Monroe)

This would bring it up to 29 of the 60 House Districts (almost half) and 11 of the 30 Senate Districts (a little over a third).

The only federal elected office which is entirely within counties that may be RCV-capable is the U.S. House District 3, in Clackamas and Multnomah counties (Earl Blumenauer, incumbent).


It is technologically feasible to bring RCV to county, city, and other local offices in Benton, Clackamas, and Lane counties, and perhaps to a number of other counties as well. Depending on the office, this would require changes to county or city charters or state law.

Bringing RCV to the state legislature could be done in two ways. One way would be institute RCV piecemeal by passing a state law allowing each district to vote on whether to adopt RCV for that district. The other way would require new purchases of voting machines to be RCV-capable by state law or regulation, and once all counties are RCV-capable institute RCV across all of the districts by state law. (The state could also offer incentives for counties to purchase RCV-capable machines with subsidies or by arranging a discount for a bulk order from a vendor.)

Elections to state-wide office (Governor, Secretary of State, Treasurer, Attorney General, Labor and Industries Commissioner) would have to wait until all counties had RCV-capable election machines.

For federal offices, it may technologically feasible to institute RCV for U.S. House District 3, although I am uncertain whether federal law would need to be changed to permit this. The other House Districts cross borders into counties that are not yet RCV-capable, as is also true for the U.S. Senate seats.

It would be relatively simple to institute RCV for the selection of Oregon’s electors in the electoral college for the Presidential election. I will discuss how this can be done in another research report.

–Alan F. Zundel

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  1. I spoke with a representative from Clear Ballot. I can see WHY you would be unable to determine their capability. He told me that they certainly ‘can’ accommodate RCV, but that they won’t have it currently available until a county specifically requests it. They need to know who would be paying for their further development. Thus it does not seem a simple add-on yet.
    In addition to your two other approaches to using RCV in state legislature races, might there not be a 3rd. Similar to a pilot study in North Carolina, it appears that multiple machines were (can be) used to count different columns (choices). Not certain if there is anything that would interfere with that approach, although not as satisfying as clear RCV ready machines.

  2. I’m not sure exactly how that would work, as the problem is connecting the second choice to the first choice on a particular ballot. Separately counting different ranks does not tell you which second rank votes were connected to which first rank votes.

    But it sounds similar to a sequential sorting method. In sequential sorting, your physically sort the ballots (the vote tabulation machine should be able to do this) by first rank votes. Then when you know which candidate is to be eliminated, you feed only the ballots which voted for that candidate as first choice back through the vote tabulation machine to count the second choice. And so forth.

    The difficulty is that the ballots can become wrinkled and hard to feed through the machines with each run through. It is also more time consuming. A lot depends on how many ballots you are dealing with. Fewer is easier, of course.

  3. Clear Ballot never even responded to my inquiries. If you talk to them (or any other election machines vendor), rather than ask if their machines can perform RCV ask if their machines keep a “cast vote record” and can export the voting data to data processing software.

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