HOBOKEN — This Hudson County city recently passed a first-of-its-kind ordinance that paves the way for ranked choice voting in municipal November elections, nearly two years after legislation was introduced in the state Assembly to adopt the practice across all of New Jersey.

That might not happen anytime soon, as it has in Maine and Alaska, according to the nonpartisan nonprofit Voter Choice NJ, but Hoboken council member Phil Cohen, one of the ordinance's primary backers, said during the voting session that this could at least get the process noticed in other municipalities.

"This is a signal to other communities in the state of New Jersey that we would like the Legislature to take this up, that voters want the opportunity to have a ranked choice option," Cohen said.

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A town-by-town approach has worked well in Utah, according to Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.

But by design, he said, it really only works when more than two candidates are entered in a race.

"There are a number of towns that have authorized it across the country but haven't used it yet, because they haven't had enough candidates filing," Rasmussen said. "So maybe the thought in that case is that it might eventually encourage more candidates to run."

That still doesn't answer the question: Just what is ranked choice voting?

'I think of ranked choice voting as automatic runoffs or instant runoffs.'

Rasmussen explained that the concept is similar to that of a runoff election, held when no candidate receives at least 50% of the original vote.

The difference is, this would only require one round of actual voting.

"I think of ranked choice voting as automatic runoffs or instant runoffs. We don't need to go back to the polls, because we register our first, second, and third choices the first time we go out to vote," he said. "If no candidate achieves a majority of votes on the first round, then the candidate with the lowest amount of votes drops off, as well as the votes they received, and in their place, those voters' second choices are now included."

A decline in turnout from one round to another was pointed out by several Hoboken council members in a recent cycle in Jersey City, and one member, Michael Russo, said tabulation in this year's New York City mayoral primary was "a mess."

But Russo and his colleagues voted unanimously to give it a try in Hoboken, hoping it will maximize participation and minimize campaign costs.

Rasmussen agreed, saying there's "no question" that ranked choice voting, when used for a general election, ensures the highest possible number of voters' voices will be heard.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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