Austin Voters Approved Ranked-Choice Voting. But Whether They’ll Get To Use It Is Another Matter.
A majority of those who cast ballots in the May 1 election want to be able to rank candidates — instead of just choosing one — when voting in local elections.
Nearly 58% of voters favored Proposition E, according to unofficial election results.
Despite the interest from voters, political experts and the City of Austin’s legal team say ranked-choice voting won’t be an option locally until something changes at the state, however.
“Since ranked choice voting is in conflict with state law, ranked choice voting would not be implemented in Austin until or unless the state legislature amended the Texas Election Code to allow it,” a City of Austin spokesperson said by email.
Joshua Blank, research director at UT Austin’s Texas Politics Project, backs the city's reading.
“Ultimately, it’s unlikely that a court would allow the city to circumvent this provision of the Texas Election Code given the general primacy of state law over local law,” he told KUT.
Ranked-choice voting allows voters to show a preference for a number of candidates, ranking them instead of choosing just one. In Austin’s case, voters would be allowed to rank up to five candidates and when the final votes are in, the lowest-ranking candidates would be dropped until the city has a winner.
One benefit of this voting method, proponents argue, is that it would do away with runoff elections, which cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars and typically attract few voters. In December, the city paid $162,000 for a runoff election to determine two City Council seats and fewer than 10% of registered voters cast a ballot.
In arguing that ranked-choice voting is not allowed under state law, the city points to a portion of the Texas Election Code that states officials in cities of a certain population need to be elected by a “majority,” or more than 50% of the vote.
In response to an inquiry from Austin’s Law Department in 2001, then-Secretary of State Henry Cuellar told the city it could not adopt ranked-choice voting. He argued that “majority,” as stated in the law, does not include preferential votes, or second- or third-choice votes for a candidate.
But since Cuellar issued an opinion, and not a legal judgment, proponents of Prop E say it’s still an open question whether Austin voters can rank their choices for local office.
“It’s not clear what state law allows,” said Andrew Allison, chair of the political action committee Austinites for Progressive Reform “The election code is silent on ranked-choice voting.”
Allison said the city now has options: It could ask the state for further clarification on the law or hold an election with ranked-choice voting and see if the state protests. A spokesperson told KUT the City of Austin would do neither of these things.
In 2018, state lawmakers in Utah passed a pilot program, allowing cities to opt-in to using ranked-choice voting in local elections. Allison said he hopes the Texas Legislature will do something similar. Several lawmakers have tried; during the current legislative session, Rep. Vikki Goodwin (D-Austin) filed a bill allowing cities to use ranked-choice voting, but it hasn’t moved forward in the House.
“I hope that city leaders and state leaders can come together to open the doors to ranked-choice and end this lack of clarity that exists right now in the law,” he said.