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Friday, December 29, 2023

It's their job.

Senate panel can’t decide best way to reform R.I.’s voting system in primaries

By Nancy Lavin, Rhode Island Current

In a poetic twist, the Rhode Island Senate panel reviewing alternative voting methods to improve Rhode Island primary elections couldn’t choose a single winner.

The seven-member commission concluded its 10-month review without a clear consensus on which – if any – alternative was the best way to reform Rhode Island general office and legislative primaries, according to its final report published Tuesday. 

“If the commission had united around one reform, then it would have facilitated passage of legislation to deal with this problem,” Sen. Sam Zurier, a Providence Democrat and commission chairman, said in an interview on Wednesday. “This is not an easy issue to resolve and there are pros and cons to each of the alternatives.”

Zurier liked the following two of the four options considered for elections when no electoral candidate receives at least 50% of the vote.

A top-two, nonpartisan primary: The top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advance from the primary to a general election, ensuring one candidate wins with a majority of the vote.

Ranked-choice voting: Voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no one reaches 51% of the vote, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated from the race, and voters who picked that candidate have their second choices tallied instead. The process repeats until someone wins a majority.

The top-two, nonpartisan primary format – used by California and Washington – also won the backing of Sen. Leonidas Raptakis, a Coventry Democrat. 

None of the commission’s members expressed strong support for the remaining two options reviewed: 

 Runoff elections: The top two vote-getters face off in a second, “runoff” election, ensuring one candidate wins with the majority of the vote.

Approval voting: Voters can choose multiple candidates on the ballot, with the candidate receiving the most total votes selected as the winner.

Meanwhile, commission member Warwick Republican Sen. Anthony DeLuca thought it was best to put the ideas before voters through a ballot referendum, according to the report. The other four commission members did not voice preferences for any one alternative.

One thing all commission members agreed on: “[A]ny change must be preceded by careful preparation and education for both voters and election officials, and that important legal issues should be resolved before any election under new procedures takes place,” the report stated.

At the very least, the panel’s work can serve as a foundation for that continuing conversation, Zurier said. And he wants more than just a dialogue.

Is a change in the state constitution needed?

Zurier said he plans to introduce legislation next year to repeal Section 2 of Article IV of the state constitution, which provides that the person with the largest number of votes will be declared the winner in any state or local elections. 

He’s still deciding which alternative – ranked choice or a top-two – he plans to propose instead, and for which elections – federal or state primaries – he wants to apply the changes.

“Part of it will be based on where I see support among my colleagues,” Zurier said.

Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio and House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi in separate interviews on Monday, Dec. 18, expressed reluctance to change voting  methods without extensive voter education, and definitely not in time for the upcoming election cycle.

Yet interest in voting reform among advocates and other lawmakers is surging thanks in part to hotly contested primaries in which winners emerged with far less than 50% of the vote. 

Zurier won his own Senate seat after beating four competitors with one-third of the vote in a special primary in October 2021. Rhode Island’s newest congressman, Rep. Gabe Amo, won a 12-way special primary in September with a similar percentage of votes.

“Our pure plurality voting system has produced results in multi-candidate elections that have raised questions about the consistency of the outcome with the bedrock principle of majority rule,” Zurier said in a statement.

The commission focused its review on state general officer and legislative primaries, which are often characterized by crowded Democratic primaries in which winners emerge with a small percentage of the total vote. 

Nearly half of General Assembly races in the last 20 years were uncontested in the general election, meaning those primary victories ultimately decided the race, according to research by the People’s Primary group. 

People’s Primary favored a switch to a top-two primary, while a separate voting reform nonprofit known as Ocean State Ranked Choice Voting pushed for ranked-choice voting.

Michael Garman, executive director for Ocean State RCV, wasn’t put off by the commission’s lack of clear direction on which reforms, if any, to advance.

“It’s exciting to see there’s so much support and so much interest in even considering voting reform,” Garman said in an interview on Wednesday. “I think it’s telling that this is a conversation that, in some ways, we are still in the early stages of.”



Rhode Island Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Rhode Island Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Janine L. Weisman for questions: Follow Rhode Island Current on Facebook and Twitter.