AUSTIN (KXAN) — In 2021, voters in Austin approved ranked-choice voting, a method that allows people to “rank” candidates on their ballot instead of voting for only one.
“If a candidate wins a majority of first choices, that candidate wins the election. If not, the last place candidate is eliminated, and supporters of that candidate have their ballots transferred to their next rank choice,” Jeremy Rose, a policy analyst for Fair Vote, which advocates for ranked-choice voting around the country, said. That process continues until someone has a majority vote.
It would eliminate the need for runoff elections which traditionally have low turnout and are often expensive.
Despite just under 60% of Austin residents voting yes on the initiative last year, those same voters are being asked to head to the polls right now to vote in four runoff elections, the mayoral election and for three city council seats.
The reason: Texas Election Code which doesn’t allow for ranked choice voting.
The Texas Secretary of State’s Office pointed to a 2001 opinion to the City of Austin from former Secretary of State Henry Cuellar and a 2003 legal opinion from then-Attorney General Greg Abbott reaffirming the state law.
“For a governmental entity in Texas to implement any form of ‘ranked choice’ voting in its elections, the Texas Legislature would need to amend the Texas Election Code accordingly,” wrote Sam Taylor, the Assistant Secretary of State for Communications.
Rep. Vikki Goodwin (D-Austin) introduced a bill this legislative session that would allow for preferential voting to be used in nonpartisan elections. She filed the same bill in the last session but it didn’t make it out of House committee.
“The Elections Committee was very focused on other things,” Goodwin said. “And so the bill did not get a hearing. But this time, I’m hopeful we’ll have a different committee chair, we will have a different committee makeup, and perhaps we’ll get some traction on it this time.”
As of Tuesday morning, just short of 30,000 people had voted in the runoff election in Travis County. That’s less than 5% of registered voters. In November, 464,186 people showed up to vote in the county.
An estimate from Travis County shows the December runoff will cost Austin $866,250, according to a city spokesperson. The city said they do not yet have estimates from Williamson or Hays County.
Austin isn’t the only Texas city looking into the new form of voting. According to the El Paso Times, El Paso City Council rejected an effort to adopt ranked-choice voting as a city ordinance. The group behind the initiative is now working to put it before voters in their election next year.
If voters were to pass the proposition, El Paso would be in the same spot as the City of Austin — tied by state law.
“I feel for Austin, that they already voted for the solution but won’t have the opportunity to use it this time around. But we’re optimistic that in the future rank-choice voting can be more widely used in Austin and across the state,” Rose said.