Posted by Emily Risch on June 14, 2019 at 11:45 AM

How Democrats will use ranked choice voting in 2020 presidential contests

Big changes are afoot in the 2020 Democratic primaries and caucuses: As many as six states plan to use ranked choice voting in these important contests.

FairVote has played a central role in the decision by these state parties to use RCV to help select the 2020 Democratic nominee. It has also worked with state reformers on change, including in New York City, where the charter commission this week voted to place RCV for all primaries and special elections on the ballot this fall.

This explainer will help you understand more about this exciting change and about how RCV works. Sources able to discuss this -- and its implications on the presidential race -- include our president and CEO Rob Richie and our senior fellow and author David Daley.

The lowdown

  • At least six state Democratic parties plan to use ranked choice voting (RCV) for all or part of their 2020 caucuses or primaries being run by their party, including for all early voters in Iowa and Nevada and for all voters in Alaska, Hawaii and Kansas.

Why is this happening now?

  • These state party leaders understand that limiting voters to a single choice poorly accommodates a crowded field of well-qualified candidates because it results in ‘spoilers,’ vote-splitting and greater potential of a nominee who doesn’t have majority support within the party.

  • Polls show that more than 98 percent of Democratic voters already will indicate their second choice candidate, and comparable numbers will likely be able to indicate ranking additional candidates as they learn more about the field.

  • Republicans showed interest in this proposal in 2016, and we anticipate similar uses of RCV in their next open seat presidential primary

Which states are using ranked choice voting?

  • Democratic state parties in caucus states are the only states committed to using ranked choice voting in 2020, although there was interest among Republicans in 2016 and in state legislatures like in New Hampshire in 2019.

  • Iowa Democrats submitted the party’s final delegate selection plan to the Democratic National Committee; 10 percent of its delegates will go to early voters, and early voters will cast RCV ballots by telephone in “telecaucuses.” Delegates will be awarded separately, meaning RCV tallies statewide and for each congressional district will be available for analysis.

  • Hawaii, Kansas and Alaska Democrats finalized delegate selection plans where all voters will cast ranked choice voting ballots, with most likely casting their ballots by mail. Wyoming Democrats may also use RCV for all voters.

  • Nevada in its draft plan suggests ranked choice voting will be used for its early voters, but the details are still being finalized; likely its early vote ballots will be tallied together with in-person caucus voting. Maine has legislation that proposed ranked choice voting in a state-financed primary.

  • Those casting RCV ballots will rank the candidates. If their first choice has at least 15 percent, their ballot will keep counting for that candidate. If their first choice is in last place and below 15 percent, their vote will count for their second choice. This will continue until all candidates are above 15 percent. These tallies will be done statewide and by congressional district, just like non-RCV tallies.

  • Traditional in-person caucuses, to be used in Iowa and Nevada, will allow participants to move to a backup choice and have their vote continue to count for a candidate with enough support to earn delegates. RCV is similar to that process because it gives voters that same power and can easily be adapted to fit a party’s delegate rules.

How ranked choice voting works for presidential nominations

The 15 percent threshold set by the Democratic National Committee means that in primaries without ranked choice voting, any presidential candidate who receives less than 15 percent of the caucus or primary vote (either in a congressional district or statewide) will not earn any delegates, and their supporters’ votes will not help nominate delegates nor help determine who is the strongest candidate among the top candidates.

When ranked choice voting is used, more votes count. This is how the tally will be done: There will be one RCV tally statewide and one for each congressional district, as Democrats award delegates based on both of those results:

  1. Voters rank candidates in order of their choice.

  2. If any candidates earn less than 15 percent of the vote, the ranked choice vote tally starts. The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and those voters have their ballots count for their second choice (or next choice among active candidates).

  3. This process continues until all active candidates have at least 15 percent of votes. Delegates are then allocated proportionally.

Note: The process for in-person voting at caucus is similar: For caucuses, these voters simply shift to their next choice, rather than having their ballot redistributed.

How ranked choice voting works to elect a single candidate (as in Maine)

  1. Voters rank candidates in order of their choice.

  2. If a candidate earns a majority of first choices, they win, just like any other election.

  3. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and those voters have their ballots count for their next available backup choice.

  4. This process continues until a candidate wins with a majority of votes.

More on ranked choice voting

  • 75% of voters in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District in 2018 reported ranked choice voting was “easy”, according to an exit survey conducted with Colby College and the Bangor Daily News, and more Mainers cast ballots in their RCV race for Senate than their non-RCV race for governor.
  • Voters are just as likely to understand ranked choice voting elections as other types of election methods
  • More women and people of color have run and won in Bay Area elections since ranked choice voting was adopted
  • Voters in cities that use ranked choice voting reported more civil and issue-focused campaigns and elections than those in non-RCV cities
  • Voter turnout is up significantly in mayoral elections in cities using RCV, including in 2017-2018 in Minneapolis, Oakland, San Francisco, Santa Fe and St. Paul.

Media coverage/Op-eds

FairVote has worked on ranked choice voting for the last 27 years, including in-depth work on New York City. It is a nonpartisan electoral reform organization.

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