In a rapidly changing presidential primary field in which voters may only vote for one candidate, it is inevitable that some voters will cast an early vote only to learn that their preferred candidate dropped out of the race mere days later. We’ve been tracking such "wasted votes" throughout the 2020 primary season, and nowhere is the point illustrated as perfectly as in Washington State.
Washington’s vote-by-mail primary was on March 10th and ballots were accepted if they were postmarked by that date. This means results from early ballots were available immediately after election day, but full results were delayed by more than a week as ballots continued to arrive in the mail. This gives us a unique opportunity to track trends over time.
We found a stark difference between the ballots which were counted immediately and those which were counted over the following ten days. On the morning following election day, two-thirds of ballots were in and those ballots included a 34% rate of votes for candidates who had withdrawn prior to election day. That rate is one of the highest we’ve seen throughout the primary season.
However, those were only the ballots mailed early enough that they could be counted on election day. Late-mailed ballots included far fewer wasted votes. The rate of wasted votes dropped below 7% for ballots received more than three days after election day, bringing the combined wasted vote total down to 25%.The chart below shows how the rate of wasted votes changed each day as more ballots arrived by mail.
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The bulk of wasted votes were for Elizabeth Warren and Michael Bloomberg, who dropped out of the race five days and six days prior to election day.
Voters who mailed their ballots later were less likely to vote for a candidate who had already withdrawn. This suggests that voters who knew about the candidate withdrawals in the final days leading up to election day adjusted their behavior accordingly. That is sensible, and it strongly suggests that many early voters would have voted differently given the opportunity to do so.
The behavior of Washingon Democrats shows that the wasted votes we’ve seen nationwide aren’t a fluke and they’re not due to voters stubbornly supporting obviously non-viable candidates. Wasted votes are the direct result of voters’ lack of knowledge about which candidates will remain active at the time they cast their ballots. This lack of knowledge effectively disenfranchised 25% of Washington Democratic primary voters, and 34% of early voters.
This should not be taken as an argument against the opportunity to vote early and vote by mail, but as an argument against limiting voters to a single choice on the ballot.
Many states are following Washington’s lead and expanding their vote-by-mail programs in response to public health concerns raised by holding elections during a pandemic. A perfect complement to vote-by-mail is ranked choice voting (RCV) which gives voters the option to rank the candidates on the ballot before mailing it in, allowing a voter to support a “back-up choice” in case their first choice is not viable when election day arrives.
This is exactly what Democrats are doing this week in Alaska, Hawaii, and Wyoming. In the midst of primary election chaos elsewhere, these three states are able to keep their April primary dates and conduct their elections entirely by mail.
Stay tuned for an analysis of the results of the first RCV presidential primaries, beginning with Alaska results around April 11th.