As news outlets have highlighted over the past week, FairVote recently conducted an innovative poll of South Carolina Democrats that simulated a ranked choice voting (RCV) election by allowing respondents to rank their preferred candidates.
While we have detailed some of the major takeaways of the poll, we want to further highlight how RCV would, if used in the South Carolina primary, ensure voters’ preferences were better represented.
According to the rules set forth by the Democratic National Committee, any candidate who achieves support totaling or exceeding 15 percent in a primary or caucus is eligible to accrue delegates. According to our poll, under the current system -- where preferences are not ranked and voters can only choose a single candidate -- Joe Biden would have received all of South Carolina’s delegates, despite receiving significantly less than a majority of first-choice support.
Why would this have occurred? Biden was the first choice of 40.33 percent of survey respondents, trailed by Bernie Sanders with 14.4 percent, Pete Buttigieg with 10.98 percent, and Elizabeth Warren with 9.63 percent. Because Biden is the only candidate to break the 15 percent threshold in our poll, he would have received all of the state’s delegates.
If the trend of our poll holds (meaning Biden maintains the first-choice support of four out of every 10 South Carolina Democrats), it would hardly seem fair that he could receive all of South Carolina's delegates allocated based on the statewide vote. Yet, under the current system, that is exactly what could happen.
If, instead, RCV were used in the South Carolina primary, transferring votes from the lowest ranked candidates to respondents’ later choices (until all candidates remaining were above the 15 percent threshold), the result would be Biden, Sanders and Buttigieg clearing 15 percent. This would lead to Biden earning 55.5 percent of statewide delegates, while Sanders would receive 26.1 percent and Buttigieg would get the rest with 18.5 percent. While not perfect, this system would provide a fundamentally more equitable result that would more directly reflect the will of South Carolina’s voters.
In fact, four state Democratic parties -- in Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas, and Wyoming -- will follow these rules and allocate delegates by congressional district using ranked choice voting. RCV was attractive to these states, because it had similarities with in-person caucus systems (like those used in Iowa and Nevada), particularly the facet that allows participants to move from a weaker candidate to one who is "viable" for earning delegates. FairVote will be helping to introduce voters to their new ballots -- a process we try to ensure always happens when RCV is first adopted in a new locale.