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Ranked-choice voting bill has bipartisan support

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Voters cast ballots in Madison during the 2020 presidential election.

MADISON (WKOW) -- A bill presented Wednesday would change the way Wisconsin voters choose their representatives in Congress and the U.S. Senate.

The measure, sponsored by two Republican lawmakers and a pair of Democrats, would bring Ranked Choice voting to Wisconsin. The system eliminates partisan primaries as supporters say it would remove the current incentives for Republican and Democratic lawmakers to outdo each other in primaries to show who's the most conservative or liberal candidate.

"I truly think you have 10 to 12 [percent of] people that are far to the left, you have 10 to 12 people that are far to the right," said Rep. Tony Kurtz (R-Wonewoc). "And then you've got that 75-80 percent in the middle that truly wants to see stuff getting done."

Kurtz, along with Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) are the GOP co-authors of the legislation. Sen. Jeff Smith (D-Brunswick) and Rep. Daniel Riemer (D-Milwaukee) are the Democratic sponsors.

Under Ranked Choice, all of the candidates for an office go into the same primary field, regardless of party. The five candidates with the most votes in the primary advance to the general election.

During the general election, voters would then rank their candidates by choice one through five. In one candidate gets a majority of the vote, they're the winner and the race is over.

If no one hits 50 percent, the person with the fewest votes is eliminated and their voters' second-place votes are distributed among the remaining candidates. This process plays out until a candidate reaches 50 percent.

Smith said he supported the bill because it would also give outsiders a better shot at capturing an office.

"Third-party candidates don't have a chance," Smith said. "They get ignored. You open it up with something like this, they can actually make a difference."

Smith said he also supported the idea of applying Ranked Choice voting to state legislative and local elections. Kurtz was more hesitant, saying he wanted to start with congressional races.

"We've got eight congressional seats in our state, we've got two senate seats," Kurtz said. "I think that's a much easier model to begin with."

Both Smith and Kurtz acknowledged given the relative unfamiliarity voters have with the concept, they did not expect the bill to pass in this session; instead, they view the bill as a foundation for a long-term push.

"We're expecting that this is gonna take more than one attempt to become the system that we follow," Smith said.

The push behind Ranked Choice voting in Wisconsin is led by the group, Democracy Found. Its leaders are Austin Ramirez, the CEO of Husco International in Waukesha, and Katherine Gehl, the former CEO of her family's company, Gehl Foods.

According to FairVote, which advocates for the system, more than 20 cities and counties around the country use Ranked Choice. Maine uses the system for state and federal primaries and for congressional and presidential general elections. Alaska will begin using the system in 2022 for legislative and statewide races.

Major changes and unaddressed criticisms

If Ranked Choice voting ever came to Wisconsin, it would require clerks across the state to get new equipment that could tabulate ballots under the new system.

Smith said he wanted to ensure the state would commit to paying for any new purchases or training hours that went into implementing Ranked Choice.

"If we're gonna mandate something, we better pay for it," Smith said. "We better pay for training, we better pay for equipment. We can't leave it up to our towns and villages."

Critics of the system also say it would not address what they consider the biggest threat to representative democracy: money in politics.

Both Kurtz and Smith said they agreed Ranked Choice wouldn't account for that issue, with Smith saying he supports publicly-financed campaigns.

Kurtz said he was open to creating a formula based on the median income of a district that would cap how much money both campaigns and outside political groups could spend on a race.

"This is a discussion I would love to have in the future about how we do limit the money in politics," Kurtz said. "Because it is insane."

Another challenge would be voter confusion. Smith said part of the Ranked Choice push would include conversations with local elections officials.

"We will have to have more conversations with our clerks, with everyone involved," Smith said. "This is our first try."

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