Voices & Choices

FairVote’s Scholarship Makes the Case for RCV in Presidential Primaries

FairVote’s Scholarship Makes the Case for RCV in Presidential Primaries

FairVote has an important history of leadership in scholarly writing about its reform proposals. This year, FairVote’s Rob Richie, Ben Oestericher, Deb Otis, and Jeremy Seitz-Brown wrote a 10-page article for Politics and Governance about how the use of ranked choice voting (RCV) ballots in presidential primaries both preserves the right of voters to elect their party’s nominee while encouraging candidates to build a majority coalition within their party and reflect its values in order to secure the nomination. It was part of a special collection by Politics and Governance on the “peril and promise of ranked choice voting.”

As the last few presidential primary election cycles have shown, the selection of a major party’s nominee has a profound impact on the American political ecosystem. In recent cycles, we have seen several large fields of candidates, in which outsiders such as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders — neither of who had ever run as a major party candidate before winning the Republican and Democratic Party primaries in New Hampshire in 2016, respectively — have either won the nomination or gained considerable support in primaries. Crowded fields and successful “outsider” candidates have generated interest in how to ensure that candidates earn true majority support from their party before becoming its nominee. 

Prior to 1968, voters had little to no direct involvement in the nominee selection process. Instead, members of Congress and party leaders met in conventions to determine party platforms and nominees. While the role of voters expanded throughout the twentieth century, the actual election of nominees was still up to delegates who typically were not bound to vote for the winner of their party as they voted repeatedly to identify a candidate able to get majority or even super-majority support.

While undemocratic in obvious ways, the result was a nomination process that encouraged candidates to build support among a broad range of coalitions within their party rather than within a narrow faction of voters. Later reforms elevated the role of primaries and started to bind delegates to the results of their state primaries. These reforms improved the agency of voters, but they also weakened the incentives for candidates to compromise and unify their party. 

The use of RCV in presidential primaries enables voters to produce a nominee who both reflects the will of the people and represents a broad range of the party’s interests. Because candidates may need not just the first-choice support of their most ardent supporters but also the second- or third-choice support  of backers of other candidates, they are encouraged to reach outside of their base and attempt to meet the needs of multiple interest groups within their party — just as they were when party elites chose the nominee. However, RCV also ensures that voters retain the deciding power in presidential primaries. 

In 2020, five state Democratic parties used RCV ballots in party-run primaries and caucuses. Among other benefits, RCV was shown to effectively eliminate the number of “wasted votes,” or votes cast for candidates who did not pass the 15% threshold necessary to win delegates or had already dropped out of the race. More than seven million votes were cast for such candidates in non-RCV state Democratic primaries, while states using RCV saw no votes counted towards these candidates. Additionally, nearly three out of every four voters ranked multiple candidates in RCV states, and more than 99.7% of RCV voters cast a valid ballot. 

The success of RCV in these five states and the decision by Republican state parties in Indiana, Utah and Virginia to use RCV for key contests at their statewide conventions in 2020 show that RCV is no longer a hypothetical reform. It is a tested and successful method that ensures voters always have their voices heard and can truly vote their preference. In 2024, FairVote anticipates that more states parties will use RCV following its success in 2020, with Maine and possibly other states to become the first states to establish RCV in their presidential primary laws. Given the clear trend toward crowded fields when a party has an open nomination contest, both major parties have reason to expand the role of RCV in their nomination processes. FairVote’s Politics and Governance article will be an important resource making the case for all they have to gain. 

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