Nevada made history this weekend as the first state to use ranked choice voting (RCV) in a presidential primary or caucuses. Vox even listed ranked choice voting as one of the big winners coming out of Nevada, while Washington Post editorial writer Stephen Stromberg elevated RCV as a bright spot amidst caucus challenges. But this use of RCV was different than any other prior uses. Let’s take a look at the novel way in which RCV was used in Nevada and how it impacted results.
Nevada chose to continue using caucuses even after DNC rule changes made caucuses trickier from an administrative perspective. However, the Nevada Democratic Party added four days of early voting to make their nominating process more accessible. Early voters used ranked choice ballots in order to equalize their voting power with that of in-person caucus-goers.
Nearly 105,000 votes were tallied, with almost 75,000 of those coming from early ballots which used RCV.
As you’ll see on the ballot, the party made an unusual decision: to require voters to indicate rankings in at least the first three columns. FairVote and several voting rights and electoral reform groups expressed concern to the party about this requirement, but voters ultimately handled it well. Fewer than one out of every 300 ballots did not include at least three rankings.
Just like in Iowa, Nevada Democratic caucus-goers at each of the 2,097 precincts had the option to “realign” if their first-choice candidate did not have enough support to earn delegates at that caucus -- typically 15% of the vote. During the First Vote, in-person caucus-goers aligned with their preferred candidate, and early ballot totals were added to in-person totals based on the first choices marked on each early ballot.
At that point, candidates who had crossed the viability threshold were declared viable. In-person caucus-goers supporting a non-viable candidate had the option to realign with a viable candidate instead. Early ballots which had counted for non-viable candidates were transferred to those voters’ next-highest viable choice. For example, an Elizabeth Warren early voter in a precinct where Warren was declared non-viable would have their ballot count for their second choice. If their second choice was also non-viable, their ballot would count for their third choice, and so on. This mechanism gave early voters the same voting power as in-person caucus-goers.
Ranked choice voting not only empowered more voters to participate by allowing early voting, it also empowered a greater number of voters to make their voices heard by supporting a viable candidate.
Take a look at how votes transferred between the First Vote and Final Vote:
97% of first-round votes continued on and counted in the Final Vote. For in-person voters, this means voters moved to a backup viable choice. For early voters, it means most ballots for non-viable candidates in the first round also included a subsequent ranking for a viable candidate. This impressive result indicates the voters used RCV well, with most early voters whose first choice was non-viable having their vote count for a backup choice.
At each individual caucus, almost all votes/voters counted for viable candidates at the end of the process. But across the state, the results do not clearly tell that story. Only Bernie Sanders was reliably above the viability threshold. Other candidates would have gained some support in precincts where they were viable and lost support where they were not, leading to a net effect that looks like some of them were simply treading water.
As a result, it's hard to know which candidates were best at earning backup support. That would change if Nevada moved to an entirely ranked choice voting election because viable candidates would never lose votes -- they would only gain votes from other candidates who were eliminated.
Even with partial implementation of ranked choice voting, 22% of Final Votes in Nevada went to candidates who received no delegates, meaning the partial-RCV method did not eliminate “wasted votes”. A full ranked choice election, in which no voter would be stuck with a candidate who appears viable in one precinct but doesn’t qualify for convention delegates, would give voters even more voice in the process.
As Nevada lawmakers consider possibly establishing a primary and seeking to be first in the nation, there's a strong argument to be made for expanding ranked choice voting to all voters. It’s an excellent way to make more voices heard in a crowded field and reward candidates who are able to consolidate support.