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Connecticut’s Rated Choice Working Group considers election reforms, leaves out top supporters

HARTFORD – A fourteen-member working group focused on exploring options for ranked-choice voting met for the first time Friday morning and – almost as one person – they expressed enthusiasm for the idea.

But while the group – appointed by Governor Ned Lamont – met for 75 minutes in the Legislative Office Building, who wasn’t invited was almost as interesting.

Many of the loudest voices for a ranked-choice voting process were not asked to participate. Among them were the state’s three largest independent parties: the Green Party, the Libertarian Party and the Independent Party.

And perhaps the most vocal supporter among state lawmakers, state Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, was also not asked to participate. Elliott introduced ranked-choice voting measures during the long legislative sessions in 2017, 2019, 2021 and 2023. He also told CT Examiner that — if he were re-elected this year — he would introduce a similar proposal in 2025.

CT Examiner spoke to Elliott and top officials from the Green Party and the Independent Party about their views on the composition of the working group.

For the most part, they still expressed support for the governor’s interest in the issue. But they also had their own questions.

“I am confident that a number of members who are part of this working group are not in favor of ranked choice voting,” said Elliott, who declined to name those members. “I really hope they come up with a workable plan for the future. The technical components of ranked choice voting are not up for debate and are fairly easy to administer.”

Elliott told CT Examiner that while he was not asked to be on the group, he did say, “Personally, I don’t normally join working groups. I’m just happy to continue working with anyone interested in this topic.”

Chip Beckett, chairman of the Independent Party in Connecticut since late April, told CT Examiner that, in his view, “the past and present leadership are happy with the status quo.”

Still, Beckett told CT Examiner is hopeful the state will have some form of ranked choice by 2025 or 2026. “I would like to see this start in the primaries and then move into the general election.”

Connecticut Green Party co-chair Justin Paglino told CT Examiner that he would “rather” see representation on the working group from the Green Party, the Libertarian Party or the Independent Party. Paglino noted the inclusion of Lindsay Farrell, former state director of the Connecticut Working Families Party and current senior political strategist for the national Working Families Party: “It’s mostly a party that doesn’t have its own candidates. They are a fusion voting party that supports one of the other party’s candidates.”

Paglino also said he would have preferred if the governor’s accusation had a broader scope.

“The scope could have had a broader mandate to explore what the impact of ranked choice voting would be in our legislative elections and also in our state-level elections, or even in the federal elections. But that’s not the case,” Paglino said. “If it’s about gathering information, why not broaden the mandate?”

When asked for comment, David Bednarz, a spokesman for the governor, had no response to those concerned about the group’s makeup.

But Monte Frank, an attorney and the 2018 candidate for lieutenant governor on the Oz Griebel-Frank for CT Party ticket, is vice chair of the working group. He told fellow members Friday morning that the meeting was a good first step in discussing an issue that needed to be talked about.

“I am deeply committed to improving democracy in Connecticut,” Frank said. He said such a process could “promote the quality of democracy.”

The working group’s co-chairs are state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, and state Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield.

State Rep. Aundre Bumgardner, D-Groton, one of the group’s 14 appointed members, praised the members as “a bipartisan panel with regional diversity. Twenty-nine states have implemented ranked choice voting in some form. It is long overdue for Connecticut to join that group.”

The panel will hold five more meetings and – after the last meeting on November 8 – prepare a report with recommendations to be submitted to the governor by the end of this year. These findings could be considered by the General Assembly during the long session of the state Legislature in 2025.

Most of the conversation on Friday revolved around a presentation and an answer-and-question session led by Deb Otis, FairVote director of Policy & Research, a bipartisan group.

During her 50-minute presentation, Otis told working group members that ranked-choice voting is “a simple change with powerful consequences for our democracy.”

Otis provided an overview of where ranked choice voting is used in the country; how it is used; why it is used; and various statistics about its impact.

The idea of ​​ranked choice voting, also called instant run-off voting, is to allow voters to submit a ballot that ranks candidates in order of preference; In an election, at least three candidates are required to activate the voting method. A candidate wins outright if he receives at least 51 percent of the vote. Otherwise, tabulators eliminate the last-place candidate, whose voting preferences are then reallocated to the other candidates based on voters’ preference. Successive rounds of elimination and redistricting follow until a candidate has 51 percent.

Currently, only Maine and Alaska and 50 cities and counties in the United States use some form of ranked choice voting. But that translates into about 13 million voters.

But at least in its current form, the task force has only been asked to consider ranked-choice voting for caucus races, conventions, primaries and some municipal elections.

Otis told members that there are many benefits to ranked choice voting, but she cautioned, “I don’t want to give the impression that ranked choice voting is the panacea.”

For example, Otis said research and analysis have not shown greater confidence in election integrity with ranked-choice voting. It also hasn’t shown a dramatic increase in election turnout, she said.

But, Otis said, “there is good evidence” from research on the topic that shows there is “less mudslinging” and more issue-oriented campaigning from those running for office. “Candidates need to appeal to a broader group of voters,” she said.

And, Otis pointed out, “highly polarizing candidates will struggle” with the system because most voters, even if they have a base of support, would likely not choose such a candidate as a second or third choice.

Otis said the results in communities with ranked-choice voting are clear: There are more women and diverse officeholders because of ranked-choice voting. She pointed to New York City, which Otis said has “the most diverse city council in history.” Otis also noted that the seven members of the St. Paul Minnesota City Council elected in November 2023 were all women and most were women of color.

Hwang asked Otis why the idea was met with criticism in some parts of the country.

“The opposition is strong and well organized,” Otis responded. “Much of the opposition comes from far-right interests. Leonard Leo and the Federalist Society are major backers (of the opposition).”

In announcing the working group, which includes representatives from the national Working Families Party, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, as well as state and local officials, Lamont explained that it is “an incredibly popular proceeding among several political parties that allows voters to fully consider all their preferences when choosing candidates for elected office…. It has been used successfully in other US states for many years, and there is a growing consensus in Connecticut that implementing this system here will benefit our constituents.”

Hwang said there will be five more meetings in June, July, August, September and November on topics involving underrepresented groups; financial and legal questions; and budgetary issues.