Oregon Ranked Choice Voting (Oregon RCV) is a dynamic coalition that brings together community organizations and individuals to enhance electoral participation in Oregon. Committed to introducing ranked choice voting — a form of instant runoff — Oregon RCV aims to broaden electoral voices and diversify governance, aligning with the growing national trend towards more inclusive voting systems. As ranked choice voting gains momentum nationwide, Oregon RCV is at the forefront of this transformative movement in their home state.
For our feature, we interviewed Co-founder Mike Alfoni. He shared his inspiring journey from political consultant to key figure in democracy reform, gave us the political lay of the land in Oregon, emphasized why RCV is so important, and provided some great tips on how to get involved.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Alana Persson: What inspired you to get involved in election reform?
Mike Alfoni: I'm the co-founder and executive director of Oregon Ranked Choice Voting. We support a large coalition working on electoral reforms here in Oregon. I was drawn to this work. I like to refer to myself as a reformed political consultant because I've worked in politics for a long time, and it's always been a hard business. [Political consulting is] always a place where people have terrible perceptions about politics, often rightfully so. But it's just gotten so much worse in recent years that I felt like I needed to step in a different direction and join the movement to make our democracy better.
Alana Persson: Could you provide a little background on what the political landscape in Oregon is like? What problems might ranked choice voting help fix?
Mike Alfoni: Oregon, like any place, [is] not immune to the rancorous partisanship happening nationwide. It probably started a little later here, but we just had the longest legislative walkout in the last hundred years in America that nearly shut down our entire legislative session. [The recent dysfunction in Oregon illustrates] the inability of politicians to get work done across the country right now. And I like to think of us as part of the quieter, much larger group of people trying to fix democracy rather than the few loud ones trying to burn it down.
Alana Persson: Why do you think ranked choice voting is gaining popularity in Oregon?
Mike Alfoni: Fundamentally, if you talk to voters, they don't feel like they have a real voice in our elections. When you talk to people about why they don't vote, skip down-ticket races, or do not pay attention [...], they feel like their vote doesn't matter or they don't have real choices. To be clear, I don't think ranked choice voting will solve everything, but it helps solve many things. And we need to start taking these steps as cities, as states, and as a nation to make sure that we as a people are prioritizing democracy. And we ensure, as a people, that our voices are heard because, ultimately, at the end of the day, we can only rely on the leaders in our country to fix so many things. [Our leaders] are a symptom of the system as much as they are of the times, and we can certainly fix the system itself.
Alana Persson: Could you explain why some Oregon cities have already implemented ranked choice voting in Oregon?
Mike Alfoni: Oregon has a long history of being a leader in elections. We're well known for being the first state to fully [allow] vote-by-mail; we have a long history of bipartisanship and being forward-thinking of our elections. We generally have excellent [voter] turnout compared to other states in the country, and we have excellent election administrators. Elections are something that our state has always prided itself upon.
Benton County was a great example of people coming forward, citizens coming forward, putting an initiative on the ballot, and passing ranked choice voting. It's one of my favorite stories not only because it overwhelmingly showed voters like it, but because the city council elected officials in Corvallis (the biggest city in Benton County) proactively chose then to adopt ranked choice voting for their elections, having seen how well it worked. This is a massive success story, not only of people leading and changing issues locally, but politicians adapting and taking what others might see as a “risk” by changing the system they were elected under to improve voting for people.
Alana Persson: 2024 is a big year, as instant runoffs will be on the ballot for voters to decide. Could you talk about what happened last year to get a ranked choice voting bill passed via the legislature?
Mike Alfoni: Ostensibly, this all began in 2016 with Benton County, so it's essential for other people looking to do this to realize this is a long play. First, we sat down with a table of about 40-something organizations that meet regularly and we got a policy workgroup of organizations and their representatives to study ranked choice voting. I will share with you that several people joined, saying they joined intending to kill it as a policy, and by the time they walked out, they were advocates. Much of our story is that we began with those who believed in us, and then we started with being vulnerable with many groups that could have told us no.
By not just trying to shove it down everyone's throats and having a good conversation about it, we built one of the largest, if not the largest ranked choice voting coalition in the country. [Our coalition] ultimately represents somewhere north of 10% of Oregon's voting population in terms of that coalition's membership size. [Oregon House] Speaker [Dan] Rayfield was a huge advocate for ranked choice voting, and we could not have done this without him. Between the coalition and working with leadership with the inside track, those two elements were necessary for us to get over the line here. And I will note that we ended up with a bipartisan vote because we did have Republican votes in both the House and the Senate, despite it being led by a Democratic representative.
Alana Persson: Could you talk about how Oregon’s approach to passing ranked choice voting differs from what has occurred in other states?
Mike Alfoni: From our perspective, we're standing on the shoulders of Maine in that they felt like they were fighting against the establishment and doing something that no one else had done before. That gave us the opening to try and do something that no one has done before: get a legislature to change how people are elected. To get politicians to change how elections work is difficult, but it's not impossible. And while people might think I'm naive, I want to point out that we won.
Alana Persson: What were some general arguments legislators made in favor of putting instant runoffs to the public vote?
Mike Alfoni: Legislators were keyed into voters liking it. There's a good body of research on that; people like popular things. [Plus], it’s been done elsewhere. Building off of the stories of other states and research from other places, [legislators knew] we could replicate it.
Alana Persson: Has public opinion shifted on ranked choice voting over the past few years? Is the public getting excited about being able to vote on the initiative this November?
Mike Alfoni: I don't think it'd be any shock to anybody that most people in the country think democracy is a bit of a dumpster fire right now, to use a technical term. But yeah, we hear from people all across the state, ‘we're so glad you're working on this,’ or ‘I've never heard about this before, but I love the idea.’ We just did a poll recently where most Oregonians had heard of ranked choice voting before, which I'd never seen before in any state that didn't have it statewide. So that was heartening.
As things come to a head nationally, as people see the dysfunction in our state and national governments, people are searching for a solution because the hyper-partisan nature of our politics currently does not match how voters think. Things have become more hyper-partisan between parties due to the system we're in and specific interests that push that partisanship, so the electorate will start to look more like that. It's the duty of the rest of us to put the brakes on that and build a better system for everybody.
Alana Persson: If people are out there and have never heard of ranked choice voting or your organization, what would you say to get people involved?
Mike Alfoni: Get involved with any of the endorsing organizations on our website, or if you can, talk to your local elected officials about endorsing. We will be moving into campaign season, too, [as] there is a ballot measure this year where voters will decide whether or not to adopt ranked choice voting. Since the legislature already voted in favor of putting ranked choice voting on the ballot, the decision is now in the hands of Oregonians, who will vote on this change on November 5, 2024. So, ahead of this election, we’d love to engage with local opinion leaders, like prominent business people, religious advocates, community members, politicians, a well-loved mayor or city council person. These are all great stamps of approval to get on this policy, and we'd love to have their support as the campaign ramps up. Visit our website and sign up for email updates.
Join us in supporting Oregon RCV's mission to reform and enhance Oregon's democracy. Your involvement can make a significant difference in the future of our electoral system. Check out their website to learn more.