Voices & Choices

Increasingly Testy Democratic Primary Provides Case for Ranked Choice Voting

Increasingly Testy Democratic Primary Provides Case for Ranked Choice Voting

It feels like winter in Iowa and New Hampshire, which means the nation’s first presidential contests are fast approaching. And as the temperatures turn frosty, so too has the race for the Democratic nomination.

There’s still a large group of candidates fighting to differentiate themselves -- as well as a tight four-way race at the top of the polls. That’s a recipe for negative campaigning and personal attacks, and over the last week, sharp exchanges between Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg have proven that formula true.

Americans hate negative campaigning. Unfortunately, it’s seemingly built into our first-past-the-post system, in which a group of voters can only indicate a preference for a single candidate. That not only magnifies conflict and disagreement, but encourages it, making our politics nastier, testier, and parties more difficult to unify. 

We see situations like the Democratic primary, where candidates, in their attempt to gain ground with prospective voters, weaken each other and the party in what some experts have termed a “circular firing squad” scenario—even, as Senator Amy Klobuchar has noted, what unites the Democratic candidates is much stronger than what divides them.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

What if there was a way to encourage candidates to embrace positivity, to emphasize common ground, and to disincentivize attacks on rivals? What if voters did not have to agonize over selecting a single candidate from a large field, but could instead rank their preferences? And what if voters who support low-polling candidates did not have to hold their noses and select a more popular candidate to avoid “wasting their votes”?

Luckily, such a system exists. It’s called ranked choice voting (RCV).

In a typical single-winner RCV election, voters rank their candidates in order of preference. If no candidate initially receives a majority of first choice selections, the votes for candidate with the least first-choice support are distributed according to the voters’ second-ranked preferences. The process continues until a winner has been selected with over 50 percent support.

In the context of the Democratic primary, where all candidates who receive 15 percent support in a caucus or primary accrue delegates, RCV could be modified accordingly, with choices being redistributed until all candidates meet that 15 percent threshold.  By eliminating “wasted votes,” this system would ensure voters that their votes and, by extension, their voices truly matter.

It is for precisely this reason that RCV has taken the country by storm, with more than 20 jurisdictions—including New York City and the entire state of Maine—adopting it. It guarantees that all votes count, promotes reflective representation, minimizes strategic voting, and discourages negative campaigning. And it ensures a winner that the most people can support.

RCV would help ameliorate the rancorous state of the current primary—a fact that state parties in four states (Hawaii, Alaska, Kansas, and Wyoming, which have all adopted RCV for their primaries) recognize. When more states follow their lead, our elections will be stronger, our debates more constructive, and members of any party will have real confidence in the outcome.



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