State Parties Turn to Ranked Choice Voting Systems to Make Convention Elections More Representative

Posted by Harry Leeser on August 01, 2016

Every four years, the Democratic and Republican parties’ national conventions draw an enormous amount of public attention as the parties select their presidential candidates and set their direction for the next four years. However, much less attention is paid to the smaller state and local conventions that are also held in the leadup to the national convention. Each of these conventions has its own rules, including the rules governing how the nominees to be selected at the convention will be chosen, and how the various party officials will be elected.

For the most part, these contests are decided by plurality voting methods such as first-past-the-post in single-winner elections and plurality block voting when electing multiple people. These systems are not particularly representative or fair, and sometimes produce results that make nobody happy. Some state parties, having recognized these shortcomings, are choosing to use various forms of ranked choice voting - sometimes described as preferential voting or instant runoff voting - instead.

In addition to the state parties that support the expanded use of ranked choice voting in general elections, three state parties and one county party allow the use of ranked ballots internally. In their convention rules, the Utah State Republicans, the Texas State Democrats, and the Iowa State Democrats have provisions for the use of various preferential voting systems, and the Arlington County Democratic Committee uses ranked choice voting to select candidates for various local offices.  

Utah Republicans use either multiple ballot or (ranked) preference voting if there are three or more nominees for an office. They have used instant runoff voting on multiple occasions, including nominating former governor Jon Huntsman in 2004, and selecting a state senate candidate in 2012. Some members of the party, such as as the Utah Republican Party vice chairman Lowell Nelson in 2011, have asked the state’s lawmakers to look into implementing instant runoff voting statewide because it will allow the party to safely run more candidates in various elections, giving more choice to voters in this heavily Republican state, without risking splitting the vote.

Texas Democrats allow state senate districts caucuses to use instant runoff voting to select their convention committee members, presidential electors, and their state committee persons. The use of IRV is not mandatory, but its inclusion allows for its use when the field of candidates is excessively large and encourages the members of the party to become comfortable with the system.

Iowa Democrats use preferential block voting in all contests that fill multiple seats. Preferential block voting is a voting system that can be used in multi winner elections that uses a ranked ballot. Much like in ranked choice voting, voters rank the candidates from most to least prefered. All first choice votes are counted, and, if any candidate has 50% or more of the vote, they win a seat. If no one has the required number of votes, then the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated and their votes are redistributed just like in instant runoff voting. This repeats until someone wins a seat. After a candidate has won a seat, they are removed from the election, and the ballots are recounted, skipping over candidates who have already won a seat, and this process continues until every seat is filled. According to state rules chair Sandy Dockendorff, the Iowa State Democratic party has been using preferential block voting for various elections held at the state convention for some time, and each year its support continues to grow.

Parties are trying their best to be better representatives of their constituents, and they are turning to ranked choice voting and other preferential voting methods because they can create more fair and representative outcomes. Support for ranked voting systems is growing, and other parties should begin adopting them. By doing so they will not only show their resolve to better represent the American people, but also make it easier for the country at large to move past the old winner-take-all system we use today, and make the United States government a true representative of the people.

Image Source: AFP/GETTY IMAGES

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