Primary Focus: Imagining Better Primaries

Posted by Molly Rockett, Demarquin Johnson on January 28, 2016

Zoom In: Voices Go Unheard During Primary Season

With less than a week until the Iowa caucuses and the first presidential nomination constests, the primary season is in full swing. Candidates are talking to voters, volunteers are blanketing the streets, and campaigns are spending millions to get their message to you. That is, if you live in Iowa or New Hampshire and a lesser extent South Carolina and Nevada.

Only in the so-called “favored four” states are candidates clamoring to court younger voters, reach out to voters of color, and speak directly to local issues. This obvious focus is reflected in media coverage as well; Iowa and New Hampshire alone absorb half of the news media’s coverage of the entire primary season. Beyond the early primary states, few Americans will have a meaningful say in the primary process, or the bevy of choices enjoyed by early state voters – in fact, odds are that about half the candidates will drop out in the next two weeks after voting in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Raising the voices of a select few states above the rest marginalizes most of the country’s primary voters. Significant national issues with no connection to Iowa or New Hampshire rarely receive attention. For example, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, did not garner the attention of most candidates until weeks after a State of Emergency was declared. Michigan does not hold a presidential primary for either party until March 8th. Michigan's late primary provides candidates little incentive to speak on its local issues despite the severity of Flint's water crisis.

Zoom Out: Imagining a Better Calendar

As long as we use a primary system that prioritizes some voices over others, the voices of most primary voters across the country are devalued. In a perfect world, what would a fair primary system look like?

To start, almost all primary reform plans share a goal of distributing that early attention from candidates and the media beyond just Iowa and New Hampshire. These reforms also prioritize protecting the voices of small population states alongside larger states throughout the primary season.

Using much of FairVote's own research, NPR recently outlined six possible alternatives to our current system. Some suggest accomplishing both objectives by rotating the states or regions that get to hold their primaries first, while others would keep small states first to preserve grassroots campaigning. Many have advocated abandoning the graduated calendar all together and moving to a national primary system, taking place on either a single day or over the course of a few months.

FairVote suggests retaining some kind of sequential nomination contest calendar to ensure the primary process does not become essentially an early national election without more intensive grassroots campaigning. Allowing small states and jurisdictions to lead the nominating process encourages candidates to engage in retail politics, and creates much needed space for long-shot and underfunded candidates to reach voters, but Iowa and New Hampshire should not play any special role.

Leading the process with small states and rotating those states over time would let more voters have a voice in the process while ensuring that candidates remain accountable to the grassroots. This idea, known as the “Delaware Plan,” was endorsed by the Rules Committee of the RNC in 2000 and was close to being approved at the national convention in 2000. It has since gained support for equalizing the voice each state gets in the process. Better still would be the American Plan that FairVote endorsed more than a decade ago.

Focus: Ranked Choice Voting to Give More Power to Voters

Any plan to reform the schedule and process of our primaries should also include use of ranked choice voting (RCV). RCV allows voters to rank candidates in order of choice instead of picking just one. If a voter’s favorite candidate can’t win, their vote instantly goes to their next choice. Letting voters rank candidates means their voices will be heard throughout the election, and their vote will have a better chance of helping to elect a candidate. RCV could be used to decide outcomes in winner-take-all states, and to avoid wasted votes for trailing candidates in states allocating delegates proportionally.

Voters living in the early primary states already benefit from having more attention in the primary process, but they also have greater freedom to express choices in places like Iowa that use a caucus system. Next week in the Democratic Caucus in Iowa, for example, if a candidate cannot muster enough support to be considered viable, their voters are able to transfer their support to a second or third choice, simply by nature of the caucus process. For example, if Martin O’Malley is unable to reach the viability threshold of 15% of the total vote in some Iowan precincts on Monday, his voters will have the opportunity to transfer their support to a different candidate through an in-person “second choice vote” that is very much like RCV. Their votes and their voices will continue to matter in the race, even if their favorite candidate cannot win – although unfortunately for O’Malley, we’ll never know how many Iowans saw him as a first choice, as the only numbers released on Monday night will be delegates earned.

Having a second choice in the caucus process is something most Iowa Democrats take for granted. Yet just a few days later in the New Hampshire primary, voters won’t have this chance when they go to the polls and can only vote for one candidate. New Hampshire awards delegates proportionally, but a candidate must reach a threshold of 15% to qualify to receive any delegates at all. If a New Hampshire voter chooses O’Malley in the primary, even if O’Malley doesn’t have the support to reach 15%, that voter has no opportunity to indicate a second choice. Especially in crowded primary fields, voters are left to make tough decisions often based on strategic considerations, for fear of wasting their vote on a candidate that has a long shot of being nominated.

Caucuses undoubtedly have certain drawbacks compared to primaries, however when done as in Iowa, they can allow voters faced with a crowded field of candidates to express greater choice and have a stronger voice throughout the process. Since more than two candidates are running competitive campaigns in each party’s primary, the caucus system highlights the value of RCV in this early stage of the race before the field winnows down. And down the road, we’ll see the increased value of greater choice, as winner-take-all states face the prospect of giving all of their delegates to one candidate, who may garner only 20 to 30 percent of the vote. Even in polling, we’ve shown how asking voters to rank candidates reveals more about which candidates appeal to a majority of voters in each major party’s primary. In any election, ranked choice voting would let caucus and primary voters have a meaningful choice on election day while remaining confident that the candidate with the strongest support will win. 

Image Source: Michael Vadon

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