Voices & Choices

O’Malley’s plea for second-choice support meaningless without RCV

O’Malley’s plea for second-choice support meaningless without RCV

Maryland_Governor_Martin.jpgFormer Maryland Governor Martin O’malley met with House Democrats on Tuesday to discuss his campaign for the Democratic nomination for President. O’Malley’s campaign hasn’t gone well so far - he received just 7% support for the nomination in a recent survey from Public Policy Polling (PPP), trailing both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders - and the tone of his meeting seemed to reflect that. According to the AP, O’Malley asked the lawmakers, not to make him their first choice for the nomination, but their second. Democratic Members of Congress serve as “superdelegates” to the Democratic National Convention, meaning they can vote for whichever candidate they please.

O’Malley’s request seems to reflect his political reality - half of superdelegates have already endorsed Clinton - but it also reflects how many voters think about elections in a way that our electoral system doesn’t. Like any situation in which people must choose among more than two options, voters often prefer candidates in some order: a first choice, second choice, third choice, and so on. Ranked choice voting (RCV) allows voters to indicate this preference. But in most US elections, including presidential primaries, winners are chosen in a first-past-the-post system wherein voters can only indicate support for their top choice at the ballot.

The negative consequences of this dynamic are all too familiar to American voters. Politicians often win without majority support; especially when they face multiple ideologically similar opponents that “split” the vote. Without any incentive to appeal to their opponents’ supporters, candidates are accountable only to their base and run negative campaigns, attacking one another to distinguish themselves in any way possible.

Unfortunately for Governor O’Malley, being the superdelegates’ second choice will not win him the nomination. The most recent PPP national poll does show that he has stronger second choice support, but when superdelegates cast their votes at the convention this summer, they will only be able to put their support behind one candidate. Still, using RCV would be instructive for the Democrats or any party. By counting voters second and third choices, winning candidates are able to find out more about what the people who elected them want and build greater consensus behind their platform.

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