Senate commission to study non-plurality voting


STATE HOUSE – A new Senate commission will study the possibilities of non-plurality voting and runoff elections for primaries for the General Assembly members and the state’s five general officers.

The resolution creating the commission was sponsored by Sen. Samuel Zurier (D-Dist. 3, Providence), who saw the significance of this issue in his own election to the Senate in 2021.  At that time, he won a five-way primary with 31.2% of the vote, meaning that more than two-thirds of the voters preferred a different candidate.  His experience is not unique, as other primaries (such as the 2022 Democratic primary for governor) and elections (such as the 2010 election for governor) have been won by candidates who received less than 40% of the vote. 

“The concept of majority rule is at the core of our democratic institutions,” said Senator Zurier. “When I was elected in the primary by a modest plurality, supporters of the other Democratic candidates questioned whether the result truly reflected the preference of the greatest number of voters.  I saw first-hand how our current plurality voting system does not always instill as much voter confidence in the outcome of elections as we might desire.”

Senator Zurier said he views this commission as the start of a conversation in which Rhode Islanders can learn more about other methods of selecting winners in elections — such as runoff elections, approval elections, ranked-choice voting and/or hybrid combinations of these systems.  Through this conversation, the commission will have the opportunity to make recommendations about whether or how such changes might benefit Rhode Island.

“Other cities and states have adopted a variety of ways to conduct elections that come closer to the goal of majority rule. The study commission will review these alternatives to see whether voters felt more satisfied with the results, how clearly they understood the process, how the transition went, and what sort of changes resulted during campaigns. I look forward to working with the commission to discuss how different types of elections would look like in Rhode Island,” said Senator Zurier.

Maine adopted ranked-choice voting beginning with its 2018 primaries. Ranked-choice voting, also called instant run-off voting, allows voters to rank the candidates in order of preference in races when there are more than two candidates. The votes are tabulated in rounds, with the lowest-ranked candidates eliminated in each round until there are only two candidates left. The one who is determined to have received the majority of the votes in the final round is declared the winner.

In December, people across the United States watched the runoff election between Sen. Raphael G. Warnock and challenger, Herschel Walker, since the eventual winner, Warnock, would affect the political balance of the U.S. Senate. Georgia has used runoffs in elections without a majority winner since 1964.  Alaska employs a hybrid model, in which the top four candidates in an open primary compete in a general election decided by ranked-choice voting.

The resolution (2023-S 0046), which the Senate approved Jan. 31, creates a seven-member commission to study the potential of non-plurality voting on elections for General Assembly and general officer candidates, including reviewing other states’ experiences with non-plurality voting and runoff elections and providing recommended changes in the law to implement non-plurality voting and runoff elections in Rhode Island.

The commission is also charged with analyzing the current voting system and the requirements for implementing non-plurality voting and runoff elections, including public education, voting equipment and technology, ballot designs, and costs; and determining the level of public support for non-plurality voting and runoff elections.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio has appointed six of the seven members of the commission: Senator Zurier, Sen. Leonidas P. Raptakis (D-Dist. 33, Coventry, West Greenwich), Sen. Anthony P. DeLuca II (R-Dist. 29, Warwick), Secretary of State Gregg Amore or his designee, Cranston Registrar/Director of Elections Nick Lima and Coventry Board of Canvassers Clerk Lori Anderson. An additional member represented by the state Board of Elections, is still to be appointed.

The commission is to report its findings to the Senate by Oct. 31.