State Lawmaker Introduces Bill to Establish Ranked-choice Voting in NJ

Asm. Andrew Zwicker (D-16) has introduced a bill (A5205) that would establish the new voting system for all state-level and federal elections in New Jersey, from the state Assembly to president.

If adopted, ranked-choice voting would change the current electoral system, in which the candidate who receives the most votes wins on the first ballot.

Here’s how ranked-choice voting works. In the primary or general election, voters rank their preferences for as many candidates on the ballot as they want. If one candidate doesn’t win a majority in the first round, the candidate with the lowest number of first preference votes is eliminated. The second choices of the people who voted for that candidate are then transferred to the other candidates, and so on until one candidate wins a majority. In New Jersey Assembly races, since two candidates win on each ballot, the winning threshold would be 33 percent instead of a simple majority, according to the bill.

There are several obstacles to establishing ranked-choice voting in New Jersey. For one, the state’s voting machines are unequipped to handle it. But, Zwicker said, there’s a push to replace the existing machines with ones that create a paper trail, and those could easily be programmed to handle ranked-choice voting. The bill would require the secretary of state to verify that all voting machines are equipped to handle the system before the law takes effect.

Putting the system in place for gubernatorial elections would require voters to approve a constitutional amendment because the New Jersey Constitution says candidates for governor and lieutenant governor “receiving the greatest number of votes shall be elected.” That language would need to be changed to “a majority” instead of the “greatest number of votes.”

Ranked-choice voting has been adopted in several states, but usually at the most local levels. The exception is Maine, which in 2018 elected Democrat Jared Golden to the U.S. House using the system, the first member of Congress ever elected with it. Former Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin sued to overturn the results, but an appellate panel dismissed the suit.

Such a system would likely face more than practical hurdles in New Jersey, where political power brokers are often able to effectively decide who gets elected in districts dominated by one of the major parties by endorsing candidates to receive the party “line” that bestows favorable primary ballot placement, and then seeing their choices all but rubber-stamped by county committee members.

Ranked-choice voting wouldn’t be an alien concept to New Jersey voters. Some municipalities, including Newark, have run-off elections when one candidate for mayor or City Council doesn’t get a majority. Ranked-choice voting is sometimes described as an “instant runoff.”