When we run a ranked-choice voting event, one of the most commonly asked questions is, “How do I get my [student group / trade union / local political party / crew of pirates] to switch to ranked-choice voting?” So I decided to sit down with Ben Schablin, a club member who figured out the answer to this question for his club during the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Click HERE to jump to the implementation details, but I included our full conversation to give you helpful context about how and why they switched.
Disclosure: Ben Schablin is a friend. This interview has been edited for clarity and approved by Ben and his organization, Alpha Phi Omega Theta Alpha [Stevens University].
About The Organization
Jack: “So, thank you so much for your time. First, I want to give you a platform to showcase APO at Stevens. Voter Choice New Jersey appreciated your group’s participation at our Hoboken Rank The Restaurants event. So, tell me on a high level what the organization does.”
Ben: “Yeah, Alpha Phi Omega is a national service fraternity, and Theta Alpha is the chapter here at Stevens. Nationally, there are over 500,000 brothers that are a part of APO. It’s based on 3 principles: leadership, friendship, and service; all our programming is tied into one of those 3 areas. We have about 100 nationally active brothers within our chapter, and we do many different programming throughout the semester. A lot of our service is based in 4 different areas: service to the campus, the fraternity itself, the community, and the nation and world. This last point is where we felt that [ranked-choice voting] comes into play.
Jack: What were your leadership positions in the organization?
Ben: So, I have held a bunch of different positions. The most prominent is I was the Chapter President during the 2021 calendar year. I’ve also served as the Sergeant at Arms, our group’s Parliamentarian. I did that before I was President and in some more minor roles. I’ve also served as a voting delegate for our chapter at multiple conferences. So whenever there’s legislation that the region or the national level wants to change, every chapter sends two delegates to that meeting.
Jack: That does sound like a lot of positions. How many positions does your organization have?
Ben: Yeah. So about 100 people in the organization. Our executive board has 12 members, and then we also have a minor board with around 12 to 15 positions.
Elections Before And After The Switch
Jack: Let’s start the timeline; what did your elections look like before ranked-choice voting?
Ben: Throughout the fall semester, we elect the executive board that will serve throughout the following spring semester (for a term of a full year). There are 12 positions, so we do about 3 positions a meeting over about 2 months of our weekly chapter meetings. All the nominations for the positions open about a month into the semester. On election day, those nominations close, each of the nominees gives a speech that’s 5 min long to the chapter about why they feel they should be elected, and then they answer questions from the audience. Without the candidates, we then have a discussion period where people can talk about the candidates, and lastly, we hold a vote.
Before we switched, it was just a simple first-past-the-post election, but we had run-offs. You needed to have a majority of the vote to win. So, when we had a situation where only one or two people were nominated, it was pretty straightforward. But if you had three or more brothers running for a position, they had a lot of instances where we would have to take the top two candidates and hold a run-off election.
This meant the candidates had to give speeches again, people asked questions again, and we had another discussion about the candidates we already talked about.
Jack: That sounds pretty intense. Was there fatigue when you got into these run-off elections?
Ben: It’s a big thing within our chapter that nobody likes to sit through the run-off elections, like obviously, we’re having run-off because there wasn’t a majority consensus around one person for those options. People didn’t want to sit through speeches they had heard before and weren’t interested in a discussion they felt they already had.
What was great about ranked-choice voting was that it allowed us to eliminate all those extra steps.
Jack: You have to use a voting system to help ensure you get a majority because you want people to focus on the issues and their beliefs about what’s best for your group - not who others are voting for. I know you just implemented ranked-choice voting, but have you noticed a change in how campaigns feel?
Ben: There’s a much more positive energy when we are having a discussion, and more people are actively participating because everybody knows we won’t have to go through such a long process again. We have to hear speeches by 4 or 5 people, but once that’s done, we vote and move on to the next thing. So it’s definitely much more positive.
Another thing to note is that we had some prior experience with a ranked-choice ballot. So for the example of the voting delegates for regional and national conferences - we elect two people.
This is called proportional ranked-choice voting (also known as single-transferable vote) that uses the same RCV ballot and concept of eliminating the lowest candidate and re-distributing votes until a majority (100% / 1 winner + 1 runner-up = 50%) is found - but instead, multiple winners are elected. In Ireland, where a group of four people represents each constituency, each candidate must get (100% / 4 winner + 1 runner-up = 20%) of the vote.
Just remember that ranked-choice voting is great for electing a person. If you are electing a group of people, use proportional ranked-choice.
Here’s a walkthrough of how proportional RCV elections work:
How Do I Run My Own RCV Election?
Jack: You mentioned you were the Sergeant at Arms. Did you play a role in running the logistics of the election?
Ben: Yeah. So I was the Sergeant at Arms back in 2020. The President and the Sergeant at Arms are the two people who run and facilitate all of our elections. For 9 out of my 12 months as Sergeant at Arms and for the first half of my time as President, it was the peak of Covid. We were running our organization entirely online. Since we hadn’t switched to RCV yet for many positions, we had to hold run-offs whenever many people ran for a position. It’s hard enough to get people to pay attention when you are doing these things. Doing a run-off election over Zoom with people was even more tiring and cumbersome.
Jack: How did you educate voters about ranked-choice voting?
Ben: The Sergeant at Arms gives a presentation at the beginning of every semester before our election season to discuss how our elections work so people are familiar with it. As someone who’s run it before, I never thought it was a super complicated process, and I never had complaints from people. After we used RCV for a few meetings, most people quickly caught on.
Jack: Would you have any words of caution before making the switch?
Ben: I would ensure that your organization is familiar with ranked-choice voting before you propose that change. Talk to different people within your organization: “This is something I’ve learned about that could be beneficial to our group.” and talk about the benefits (like no run-offs and no spoiler effect). For me specifically, when another brother and I went to your Rank The Restaurants event in Hoboken - we asked ourselves why we weren’t using ranked-choice voting for everything.
Jack: What tool do you guys use when running a ranked-choice election?
Ben: We use paper ballots, but instead of making custom ballots for each election, we have a blank ballot where you fill in whatever/whoever you are voting for 1st, 2nd, etc.
Jack: But as you mentioned, you weren’t always in person. What tool did you all use when you were running the election online?
Ben: Holding an election online is difficult because you don’t want anyone in your organization to see who you voted for, but you also need to ensure only the people allowed to vote can vote. We found a Slack integration that met our needs for our plurality elections with run-offs. For our ranked-choice voting elections, we found a website that emailed our club members with an email with a unique link to vote with.
Here are some examples of online RCV election tools:
rcv123.org (they also have paper ballots you can scan for quicker counting)
rankedchoices.com is nice because it is open-source
rankedvote.co is the nicest looking, but many features require a subscription
Jack: Those considering RCV express concern about how long it could take to count the paper ballots. Did you experience that issue?
Ben: With about 50 to 60 voters, it took maybe 3 minutes to count. I never found that it took that long. It’s an extra minute or two but much shorter than another run-off.
Jack: Do you have any final advice for people reading this article?
Ben: We knew ranked-choice voting was good, but when we went to the Hoboken Rank The Restaurants event, the presentation clearly laid out the benefits in a way that made our other brothers realize how a much more efficient of an election system it was. I’d pull from [VCNJ’s] presentation if I had to make a case for ranked-choice voting again.
Find a problem you want to solve in your organization and show how ranked-choice voting would be the solution. For us, the big thing was that run-off elections are incredibly time intensive for our members. For you, it might be that it could help encourage your younger members to try to run for positions. Those are much more concrete, motivating points than “it makes for better, fairer elections,” even though that’s true.
Jack: Any last words before I wrap this up?
Ben: No, thanks for the conversation. [RCV] is definitely a great change for APO. I’m on my way out; I’m graduating this semester, so I won’t personally get to see all the benefits it will serve. I wish we had decided to make this change earlier. It would have been a lot less time in meetings.
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