Presidential Election 2016: "Halftime" Report

Posted by Rob Richie on June 10, 2016

Dear Friend,


  • FairVote in TIME and Newsweek with ranked choice voting analysis
  • Primary popular vote and turnout data draw attention
  • Fixes for 2020 and beyond

The political marathon to determine the major parties' presidential nominees this November is effectively over.

Donald Trump cleared the Republican field on May 3rd after winning the Indiana primary, while Hillary Clinton is now the presumptive Democratic nominee after securing large leads in pledged delegates and super delegates. The Libertarian Party has nominated former governor Gary Johnson and fellow former governor William Weld as his running mate, the Constitution Party has nominated Darrell Castle and Scott Bradley, and Jill Stein is poised to be the Green Party nominee. Despite much speculation, no major independent bid for president looks likely.

The political world will be turning to obsessive talk about Ohio, Florida and a handful of other swing states that will decide any close presidential election. We’ll hear about relatively few Senate races in play and how nine in ten House races are already decided. General elections aren’t what they should be in the United States until we enact the National Popular Vote plan for president, ranked choice voting (“instant runoff voting”) and fair representation in multi-winner congressional districts.

But before we leave the primary season behind for the sad realities of winner-take-all politics in America, I wanted to share a few highlights from our analysis this year of the primary season.

Helping Better Understand Voter Preferences

National ranked choice voting survey of the GOP presidential candidates: In January, FairVote partnered with the College of William and Mary to conduct a national YouGov poll of the views of 1,000 Republicans and independents about the nation, the Republican presidential field and electoral reform. See our comprehensive report and an interactive presentation of the ranked choice results. More than nine in ten of those polled ranked all 11 candidates in the race, underscoring voter readiness to indicate support for more than one candidate. As reported in the latest New York Review of Books, the data showed that Donald Trump’s lead effectively vanished against Ted Cruz in the ranked choice voting tally -- but also foreshadowed his ability to win the nomination. Looking to the future, majorities of respondents favored changes to the process, including ranked choice voting.

Simulating head-to-head “instant runoffs”: Scholars like Princeton’s Sam Wang rightly lament polling methods that fail to ask and report fuller information about voter preferences. FairVote's blog series on better policy holds up very well. Using the rare polls (with a hat tip to Public Policy Polling for its release) that reported a full array of voters’ second choice preferences and theoretical head-to-head comparisons, FairVote’s simulations showed that a number of Republican primary contests would have changed winners with ranked choice voting -- a finding highlighted in publications like the Washington Post.

Getting out the Facts: Primary Voter Turnout and Popular Vote Tracker

Popular vote totals: FairVote has been reporting vote totals in every primary and caucus during the presidential nomination process. Our spreadsheet tracking popular vote totals -- which has been widely cited, including by Politifact and the Washington Post -- shows how many votes each candidate garnered in each state. One feature is the number of votes counted for candidates after they had dropped out of the election – nearly 750,000 such votes were cast in nomination races that were still being contested. If those voters had been able to cast a ranked choice ballot, they could have exercised the option to vote early without sacrificing their power to make a difference. We also show just how few eligible voters it takes to win a party nomination.

Primary focus and turnout: Demarquin Johnson and Molly Rockett –– two 2015-16 democracy fellows who are both heading to Harvard Law School this fall –– co-authored a blog series, "Primary Focus," that highlighted primary and caucus rules, structural flaws in the nomination process, and FairVote solutions to give voters a stronger voice in presidential primaries. The latest installment of the Primary Focus series provides in-depth analysis of voter turnout and presents highlights of our upcoming report on voter turnout in the 2016 presidential primaries. Bottom line: primary turnout was less than a third of eligible voters, just as it was in 2012 and 2008.

Highlighting Reforms for 2020- and Maybe Sooner!

Our communications team, led by Michelle Whittaker, helped draw attention to our reform views and analysis throughout the spring. Here are examples from just the past couple of weeks, most of which featured shout-outs to FairVote or quotes from our staff:

Ryan Teague Beckwith in TIME writes about Maine’s innovative solution to crowded fields of candidates: Ranked choice voting. “But some voters in Maine who have wrestled with a similar problem think they’ve hit on a simpler solution: let voters rank their favorite candidates. In November, Maine voters will decide whether they want to become the first state in the U.S. to implement ranked-choice voting. If a ballot initiative is approved, future Maine voters in primaries and general elections will be allowed to rank their choices for governor, Congress and statehouse races instead of voting for just one.”

Emily Cadei writes about the barriers facing third-party candidates in Newsweek“There are changes afoot to break down some of these barriers at the state and local level. Cities like Minneapolis, St. Paul, Minnesota; San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley California, now select some local officials via what’s known as “rank choice voting,” where each voter ranks their top three choices for an office, and if no candidate win a majority of first choice votes on the first ballot, then the number of second and possibly third choices are added in, until someone reaches a majority. That eliminates the concern about “wasting” a vote on an independent candidate, because if they lose in the first round, your votes goes to your second choice pick.”

Joel Bleifuss of In These Times backs ranked choice voting and the Fair Representation Act to give voters more choice and fight voter apathy: “RCV allows the voter to vote their conscience without worrying about being so-called spoilers. For example, if the U.S. president were elected through RCV, Bernie Sanders could run as an independent, and the white working-class Democrats, young folks and independents who make up his base could vote for him as their number one choice—and then list another candidate, such as Hillary Clinton, as their second, just in case Sanders didn’t win.”

FairVote Board member Mike Lind writes in the New York Times that America needs more democracy, and advocates for greater freedom to experiment at the local level as a means to achieve that: “At the level of local government, electoral reforms like ranked choice (instant runoff) voting, which transfers the second-choices of voters who backed losing candidates when there wasn’t a clear winner, can give all voters more influence than standard winner-take-all rules. A number of cities, including San Francisco and Oakland in California and Takoma Park, Md., have adopted ranked choice voting in recent years.“

My commentary lays out a plan for ending the state-by-state nomination process with a national primary day as published in In These Times“With RCV [ranked choice voting] ballots, voters would never be punished for voting early… After the state contests winnow the field, that party’s backers would pick their nominee in a single day of contests among the finalists. While a party might choose to let each state hold its own contests under its own rules, it would do well to embrace a full-fledged national primary, with every voter in every state and territory casting an equal vote.”

Ramesh Ponnoru writes in National Review on reforms for future Republican presidential nominations:  “There are, however, two changes to the primaries that I think Republicans should consider. One would be for some states to use an instant runoff or a similar mechanism to make sure that the person who wins the most delegates from the state reflects the preference of most primary voters. A second would be for states to refrain from allocating all their delegates to a mere plurality winner. Both reforms would be designed to push a little bit more than the current process does toward a consensus nominee.”

Conor Lynch writes in Salon that Bernie Sanders can use his platform to advocate for bold electoral reforms that would empower voters: “Some worthy proposals include introducing an instant-voter runoff system for presidential and senatorial elections, and….. replacing the current winner-takes-all congressional elections with a form of proportional representation would create a congress that better represents the population, while virtually eliminating gerrymandering.”

Likely Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein touts ranked choice voting in Rolling Stone: “We are in a damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don't situation right now, which should be fixed by a simple legislative reform — that could be passed right now, by the way, for anybody who is concerned about wanting to change this rigged political system: The state legislatures can simply pass ranked-choice voting, which gets rid of the fear factor. It is used in many cities around the country from San Francisco to Portland, Maine, and many in between, and in many countries around the world.”

Looking to Maine for the Way Democracy Should Be

We continue to be thrilled to see the energy and excitement building around the Maine ballot measure to adopt ranked choice voting for all primary and general elections for governor, U.S Senate, U.S. House and state legislature. Check out the campaign leading the effort and read the steady stream of thoughtful commentaries in Maine publications like these ones here.

As we welcome a terrific team of 15 energetic interns to join our staff team this summer, it’s easy to feel optimistic about chances to win reform. To help out, make donations, share your ideas and read the latest blogs and updates, please visit our website today.


Thank you!

Rob Richie
Executive Director, FairVote

Show Comments
comments powered by Disqus

Join Us Today to Help Create a More Perfect Union