The meltdown in Iowa presents a valuable opportunity to modernize the Iowa caucus while preserving its best qualities. It's time for Iowa to switch to a primary election and embrace ranked choice voting. They wouldn’t be alone -- four other states have already adopted ranked choice voting (RCV) for presidential primaries.
A primary election allows more Iowans to participate in the process, as opposed to a caucus which can disenfranchise voters who cannot or do not wish to spend several hours in a school gymnasium on a weeknight.
Meanwhile, RCV would transition Iowa’s arcane 19th-century process into a simple modern ranking system. Voters would retain more choice, elections would be run by professionals, and Iowa would protect its traditions for positive, retail campaigns.
The best part? Iowa is already halfway there.
Whether you’re a long-time caucus-watcher or whether you’re new to the scene based on this week’s fiasco, you’ve probably heard the term “realignment”. That’s a feature of the Iowa Democratic caucuses which mimics RCV. Caucus-goers have the option to realign -- that is, to transfer their support to a different candidate -- if their top choice doesn’t meet the viability threshold required to earn delegates in that precinct (typically 15%). This is similar to if the voter had been given a ballot on which they could mark a first choice and a second choice.
Why does it matter? First, it empowers more voters to have their voice heard. Second, it allows caucus-goers to express their honest support for their favorite candidate, even an underdog candidate, without fear of wasting their vote. If their preferred candidate is not viable after the first count, they can still make their voice heard by supporting their second choice in the final round. This is a key feature of RCV as well.
Let’s see how voters exercised this option. Yes, the count took a long time. But now we have most of the numbers. As of this writing on Friday afternoon, 99.9% of Iowa precincts have reported.
At the first count in Iowa, four candidates had achieved 15% support statewide -- Sanders, Buttigieg, Warren, and Biden. (This would vary between polling places, but at this time we only have the statewide results.)
Approximately four out of five caucus-goers selected one of those viable candidates in the first round. In a statewide primary which only allowed one preference, the other 20% of caucus-goers would essentially have wasted their votes because their candidates wouldn’t qualify for a slice of the delegate pie. In Iowa, those caucus-goers have the option to realign.
Supporters of non-viable candidates have options. They may at first stick with their top choice and try to draw their friends and neighbors to their cause, hoping they can boost their candidate over the threshold for the final round. But if that doesn’t work, they may support their second choice among viable candidates instead. Although we don’t know exactly how many people got that second chance to make their vote count, it looks like most voters took advantage of it.
Click the tabs in the chart above to see how votes transferred in the final round.
At the second and final count, 99% of caucus-goers supported a viable candidate. We know this because the final alignment only counts supporters of viable candidates. (Optimistic or stubborn caucus-goers who were still with an non-viable candidate at this point had the choice to align with “Uncommitted” or leave and not be counted at all.)
This means roughly a fifth of caucus-goers exercised the option to realign and support a second choice. These voters were empowered to express their true preferences and ensure their voice was heard. Ranked preferences gave them that freedom.
Of course, it was a high bar for voters to spend hours taking part in this process, at a specific time on a weeknight, and turnout was far lower than presidential primary turnout.
Key Takeaways from Realignment
- The biggest realignment winner was Pete Buttigieg. He increased his number of supporters by a whopping 15% between the first and final rounds. Perhaps a stronger-than-expected showing in the first round boosted caucus-goers’ confidence in Mayor Pete? Or perhaps it was simply because candidates more ideologically similar to Buttigieg (like Biden and Klobuchar) were those whose supporters needed to realign. Supporters of more progressive candidates (Sanders and Warren) would not have needed to realign because their candidates were already viable on the first count.
- The person who struggled most in the realignment was Joe Biden. His statewide total in the first count was 15.0% but he lost more than 2,600 voters, or 10% of his supporters, in the final round. (Remember, every voter who defected from the Biden camp came from a precinct where Biden was already trailing. If Biden had been over the threshold in their precinct, they would not have been permitted to defect.) A far higher share of backer of candidates with fewer first choices (like Andrew Yang, who had X% statewide) had to settle on a backup choice.
- A total of 3,915 fewer votes are recorded in the final round, or 2% of total caucus-goers. This number comes from 2 groups of people -- those who gave up and went home halfway through, and those who stuck with a non-viable candidate in the final round and therefore were not counted.
Why Full Ranked Choice Voting is Needed
Full use of RCV would preserve the important feature of allowing voters to realign, while simplifying the process using a modern ranked ballot. It’s faster and simpler for voters, and modern election administration would avoid this year’s chaos in reporting results.
How does RCV differ from the Iowa caucuses?
First, voters may rank as many candidates as they choose (or in some cases, up to 3 or up to 5), rather than being limited to two choices. This ensures their vote always counts and their voice is always heard.
Second, candidate eliminations in an RCV election are performed one-at-a-time, rather than in one big batch between the first and final rounds. Each round, the candidate with the lowest vote total is eliminated. This avoids the problem of “strategic voting.” For example, Amy Klobuchar’s supporters wouldn’t have to wonder whether to stick with Amy and try to gather more support for her, or whether they should abandon her and support a more viable candidate. They simply mark their ballots with their honest preferences. One-candidate-at-a-time elimination ensures that a voter’s vote always stays with their first choice until the moment that candidate is no longer viable. Only then will the voter’s vote move to their next choice.
Lastly, having a full RCV count to see -- that is, running the tally down to two -- would provide a clearer indication of which candidate has done best at consolidating support in a fragmented field. In Iowa, the “winner” of the realigned vote still only has 27% support, far from winning the state with a true majority and earning top bragging rights.
Stay tuned for more coverage of the presidential primaries. And mark your calendar for the first-ever ranked choice presidential primaries on April 4th (Hawaii, Alaska, Wyoming) and May 2nd (Kansas).
1) This number is an approximation. Each precinct determines candidate viability individually, so candidates may have been viable in some precincts but not in others. We use 80% here because it is the statewide first alignment support for Sanders, Buttigieg, Warren, and Biden.
2) Delegates could still be allocated to candidates with at least 15% support. Running the count down to 2 in this case would be a purely academic exercise, but would have value because it provides more insight into voter preferences.