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The Case for Ranked Voting in the Republican Presidential Nomination Contest

by Drew Spencer // Published June 20, 2014

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FairVote’s mission is to promote respect for every vote and every voice in every election, and all of the reforms we promote further that mission. In some contexts, a reform may seem in the short term to help one political faction or party and in other contexts an opposing faction or party, but in every context, our key reforms help voters to express themselves and achieve fair representation. While these ideas are most often applied to general elections, the same reforms can improve internal party primaries and straw polls to the same ends.

Political parties and other private organizations have the autonomy to choose whatever means of election they prefer without being subject to the constraints that state governments put on public jurisdictions like municipalities. Consequently, these organizations can simply consider election methods based on their merits for the organization, to best reflect that organization’s particular circumstances and values.

Consider the straw polls, caucuses and primaries that will go into deciding who will be the next presidential nominee for the Republican Party. The GOP is currently divided among several factions, and polls show that grassroots Republican support is remarkably split among the diverse candidates representing its various viewpoints. The CPAC straw poll provided a good example this year; Rand Paul won easily, but secured less than a third of the vote, and no other candidate won more than 11%.

Other polls have found the Republican field split even more closely. A June 1 poll conducted by CNN and ORC International listed Rand Paul as the “winner” with 14% support. A similar poll released by Reason-Rupe on April 3 had Mike Huckabee as the “winner” with 15% support. In RealClearPolitics’ averages of various polls conducted as of June 1, 2014, the top five candidates – Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie, and Paul Ryan – all have the support of between 10% and 14% of respondents.

Republican primary chart

No apparent “winner” can be divined from these sorts of polls; the only information they convey is that Republican grassroots support is split among a large number of strong candidates. This could be a good thing for the Republican Party. Having a large number of diverse candidates means that voters and the media will be more likely to be excited and engaged by the contest.

However, if the Republican Party uses a method of election that only allows voters to indicate support for a single candidate, that advantage will quickly turn into a liability. If a candidate were to win an important state primary with only 15% support, the legitimacy of the candidate’s win would be undermined, and the outcome would illustrate the lack of a strong consensus within the GOP, if not outright fragmentation and intraparty hostility.

Fortunately, there is an alternative already in use in some internal Republican Party elections: ranked choice voting (RCV), also called “instant runoff voting” and, in Robert’s Rules of Order, “preferential voting.” Robert’s Rules recommends ranked choice voting  whenever repeated voting is not possible in person, which helps explain why RCV is so widely used by private organizations.

With RCV, Republicans could rank the various candidates in order of preference. If voters’ first choices were split such that no candidate won a majority, the weakest candidates would be eliminated, beginning with the last-place finisher, and their ballots counted for voters’ subsequent choices until one candidate earned more than half the vote. Or, in states like Iowa that allocate delegates proportionally, candidates would be eliminated in reverse order of finish until every vote was counting for a candidate that receives at least one delegate. The final determination would clarify who was the real winner, but not affect delegate allocation

In Utah, the Republican Party allows caucuses and conventions to use RCV (which they call “preference voting”) for elections. They have used RCV to nominate candidates to Congress, internal party offices, and governor, including 2012 presidential candidate Jon Huntsman. Several current legislators won office through the use of RCV in vacancy elections, and RCV was used at this year’s precinct caucuses. Officers of the Utah Republican Party have also advocated for extending RCV to public elections in the state.

RCV has played an important role in nominating elections on the other side of the aisle as well. The Arlington County Democratic Party used RCV to nominate candidates in two countywide “firehouse primaries” this year, including in a vacancy election in February and a school board contest in May. Ranked choice voting helped these three-way races avoid taking on a negative tenor that could divide the party, ultimately resulting in a weaker nominee.

While RCV has a range of benefits, many of them are particularly applicable to nominating contests. It elects stronger candidates with larger bases of support, it allows more voters to contribute to the election of the winning candidate, it creates greater incentives for civility in campaigning, and it promotes campaigning to all voters and not just a narrow base of support.

In the context of the Republican Party’s caucuses, primaries, and straw polls to help decide who will be the standard-bearer in 2016, this could mean a candidate who breaks through the party’s growing factionalism and represents Republicans as a whole. Adopting RCV in upcoming straw polls is a no-brainer, and it makes a great deal of sense for privately-administered presidential caucuses like Iowa in 2016.

Reforms like RCV that promote the will of voters first and partisan interests later can work in a variety of contexts – partisan primaries and non-partisan races, Congress elections, and even the Academy Awards – to create elections in which every vote and every voice really matters and the will of the people is upheld.