Public Policy
  Analysis, opinion & ideas from Steve Harry



Ranked Choice Voting for Lansing?

February 2, 2018


There is a problem with our voting system, and ranked choice voting could be the solution.



Note: This story was written by Hugh McNichol IV, a Lansing resident and co-founder of the Lansing chapter of Represent.Us. His email is



With our current voting method, more candidates means a higher likelihood that winners can win with low support and high opposition.  Some recent Michigan State House races were won with less than 20% of the vote cast (e.g. Bert Johnson and Virgil Smith).  Multiple studies have compared alternative voting systems to the one we use (known as “First Past The Post” (FPTP) and most agree that our current system is the worst.  In addition to having the highest susceptibility to manipulation, FPTP has the added stigma for candidates that they could potentially “spoil” a race by running, and for voters whose votes might be “split”, or considered “wasted”, increasing the likelihood a dissimilar candidate wins.  This can happen with our current system, whenever more than two candidates are running.


The “top-two system” eventually solves the problem of winners having less than 50% support, but comes with its own problems.  Additional rounds or elections can sometimes cost millions of dollars.  For local Clerks, and citizens overseas or in combat zones, it means twice as many ballots printed and sent across the world.  Many aren’t received or returned in time to be counted.  Where it’s used down south, their second round elections in December are notorious for low voter turnout.  Cities and states up north (like in Lansing) attempt to solve this problem by having our second round in November.  Unfortunately, this results in lower primary voter turnout in August (Lansing averages between 5-10%).  The “top two” system is also more expensive and wastes more time and resources than any single-round voting method.   


Ranked Choice Voting (also known as “Instant Runoff Voting” and “Preferential Voting”) solves these problems.  Here’s how it works:  Voters vote for as many candidates as they like and rank them in order of preference.  In this example, I like candidate B most.  But if B can’t win, I’d prefer candidate A:



After everyone votes, all of the 1st choice votes are counted and if anyone’s received over 50%, they’re the winner.  If nobody has over 50%, an “instant runoff” takes place and the candidate with the least votes is eliminated. Votes are re-allocated to everyone’s highest remaining preferred choice and this process repeats itself until any candidate receives over 50% of the vote. This can all be tabulated instantly with our new equipment.  It’s similar to traditional runoff elections mentioned above but since we already know every voter's preferences, we don’t have to waste everyone's time and tax dollars on unnecessary extra elections.  


100 years ago, during the “progressive era”, many improvements were made to our democracy.  Although many minorities would have to wait another 45 years, many women were given the right to vote and there was more. A new voting system known as “Instant Runoff Voting” began to take root in the midwest.  Kalamazoo Michigan was the 3rd city in America to adopt it.  Ann Arbor adopted RCV in 1974 and elected their first black mayor with it in 1975.  The Republican that lost challenged the constitutionality of this system but it was upheld by Judge Wheeler (Stephenson vs. Ann Arbor Board of Canvassers).  Republicans led the effort to repeal it in a low turnout April election the following year.  In 2004, residents in Ferndale approved IRV with over 68% of the vote.  Until recently, implementation had been delayed because their equipment wasn’t capable of tabulating a ranked ballot.  That changed in 2017 when Ruth Johnson and our legislature approved new RCV compatible equipment for the entire state - at a cost of up to $82 million dollars according to the Detroit Free Press.  Whether these machines will be used to their full potential, we’ll have to wait and see.  According to the Secretary of State, the Bureau of Elections, and some state legislators: Changes to our election law will be needed before Ferndale or anyone else can exercise their rights under “Home Rule”.  Ferndale’s City Attorney disagrees saying that IRV (also known as “preferential voting”) is authorized under the Home Rule Act.  Ferndale’s Mayor and City Clerk plan to finally implement IRV in 2019, fifteen years after voters there overwhelmingly adopted it.   


Lansing’s Mayor, Andy Schor believes that a change to state law would be required too (but said he’s going to check back into it).  However, he also says “If this becomes legal, I am happy to have a community conversation about this.”  


Chris Swope, Lansing’s City Clerk, says it would take a charter amendment to enact, and must be approved by voters, but he’s supportive of taking a look at what changes would need to be made and thinks it would be a good way to save resources for the city and bring out more voter participation. Click on the photo below to see a video of Chris Swope speaking about Ranked Choice Voting at a candidate forum co-sponsored by Represent.Us in the fall of 2017.



Charter amendments can be put on the ballot via signature drive or with 6 votes by City Council.  5 of them have already voiced varying levels of support for RCV.  The local chapter of Represent.Us is in the process of educating residents about the benefits of RCV and how it fixes the flaws in our current system.  In January 2018, they gave 5 presentations to approximately 100 residents at various community gatherings throughout Lansing.  If you’d like to see RCV used in Lansing or throughout Michigan, you are encouraged to contact your state legislators and ask them  to support approving statewide RCV ballot instructions.  If you’d like to help beyond that or would like someone to present to your group, contact


Other cities that use RCV:

Cambridge, MA

Minneapolis, MN

St. Paul, MN

San Francisco, CA

Oakland, CA

Berkeley, CA

San Leandro, CA

Portland, ME

Telluride, CO

Takoma Park, MD

Santa Fe, NM will use it for the first time to elect their Mayor in March 2018. Maine approved RCV statewide in 2016 and will implement in June 2018.


For more information on Ranked Choice Voting, visit


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