Better Elections wasted millions of out-of-state dollars in failed effort to get ranked-choice voting on the ballot

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – A petition to get ranked-choice voting (RCV) on Missouri’s November ballot not only failed miserably, but wasted millions of out-of-state dollars in the process. 

RCV was a proposed constitutional amendment and needed signatures of 8% of those who voted in the 2020 gubernatorial election, coming from at least six of the state’s eight congressional districts.

But despite receiving over $6.7 million from a Virginia-based 501c(4) nonprofit named Article IV, canvassers failed to gather the required signatures in every single congressional district. 

According to the Certificate of Insufficiency issued by the Secretary of State, petition organizer Better Elections fell short by a mile. The certificate shows that across all eight congressional districts, on average, Better Elections was short by over 10,000 signatures per district.

Better Elections’ version of ranked-choice voting would have eliminated partisan primary elections and implemented one primary for all candidates. The top four candidates would advance to the general election where voters would rank their choices from most to least favorable. If no candidate received 51% of votes, a series of “runoffs” would occur. 

The candidate with the least first-place votes would be eliminated, and the ballots listing that candidate as their first choice were to be re-tallied after omitting the candidate from the ballot. The process repeats each round until a winner is determined.

“Ranked-choice voting is a scheme to disenfranchise voters by taking away binary choices, propping up unpopular candidates, and changing crucial election process rules,” said Heritage Action Spokesperson Carson Steelman. “In addition to taking voters’ voices away at the ballot box, ranked-choice voting is also extremely confusing, and can ultimately end up in a voter’s ballot being cast for a candidate he or she does not support.”

Not only did Better Elections receive an enormous amount of funds from an out-of-state organization, but its campaign was funded almost exclusively by the dark money group. According to reports filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission, Article IV’s donations to Better Elections made up 98.7% of all funds given to the campaign.

So, where did the millions of dollars from Article IV go?

Over half of the Virginia-based group’s donations, upwards of $3.9 million, went to a D.C.-based signature gathering company named Fieldworks. With that much money going toward a firm specializing in gathering initiative petition signatures – one of proven ability after successfully getting recreational marijuana on the ballot in a beet-red Missouri – what went wrong?

“When companies are paid this much money that specialize in [signature gathering], and they fail to even get the signatures to get on the ballot, I think that says so much about how unpopular and fringe this idea is,” says Jason Snead, executive director of the Honest Elections Project.

“It’s a pretty fringe idea, and it’s complex and difficult to explain. Ranked-choice voting introduces complexity, uncertainty and risk, when what we really need are elections that deliver confidence and clear and accurate results.” 

Individuals from Arkansas, Florida, Illinois and Georgia were paid by Better Elections to gather signatures.

Ranked-choice voting has been criticized in several states in which a push has been made to implement it, with many saying it gives an advantage to one side and unnecessarily complicates the voting process.

The Washington Examiner reported that Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton called RCV a “corrupt scam.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy labeled it as “woke,” and New York Rep. Claudia Tenney argued that it “disenfranchises” voters. 

Even former governor of California Jerry Brown, a Democrat, recognized the flaws in the ranked-choice voting system and vetoed a bill in 2016 that would have expanded RCV across the state.

“Ranked-choice voting is overly complicated and confusing. I believe it deprives voters of genuinely informed choice,” Brown said.

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft called the voting system “smoke and mirrors” and believes the group pursued RCV with the sole purpose of giving an advantage to Democrats on election day. 

“It’s an outside partisan political group that’s trying to change Missouri’s election laws so that they will win,” Ashcroft told The Heartlander in January. “I believe that the process we have is correct for making sure that the lawful voters of the state make the decision, and I will fight to defend that.”

Considering RCV’s documented record of benefitting Democrats over Republicans, a look at Better Elections’ Missouri Ethics Commission reports unearths a handful of Republicans that peculiarly show up on the receiving end. 

Conservative-leaning Dave Roland, co-founder, director of litigation and president of the board of directors for the Freedom Center of Missouri, is listed as Better Elections’ treasurer. The Freedom Center is actively “Fighting to secure individual liberty and transparent, accountable, constitutionally-limited government in Missouri,” its website says – categorically aligning with conservatism. From December of 2021 to present, Roland accepted a total of $25,000 from Better Elections.

In 2022 alone, The Barklage Company – a consulting firm that has received $70,000 from Better Elections since December of 2021 – has been contracted by Republican St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann, Republican state Rep. Bruce DeGroot and Republican state Sen. Karla Eslinger.

Husch Blackwell Strategies, which has received over $105,000 from Better Elections since December of 2021, was contracted just last year by the Southwest Missouri Conservative Values PAC and Missouri Republican Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe’s campaign.

Hancock & Prouty – which has received over $71,000 from Better Elections since December of 2021 – has been contracted by Republican St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney Time Lohmar in the past and has received several payments over the past two years from Lt. Gov. Kehoe’s campaign. 

It is unclear why Roland and these consultants – who consistently fall on the conservative side of the aisle – advocated and accepted payment from a campaign pushing a voting system shown to benefit Democrats. 

“As the push for election integrity continues, ranked-choice voting should not even be part of the debate,” Steelman said. “Instead, our leaders should opt for policies that will protect our elections by requiring photo IDs, outlawing ballot harvesting, removing the influence of ZuckBucks, protecting poll watcher access and verifying voter rolls.”

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