Voices & Choices

Ranked ballots could debut in 2020 presidential primaries

Ranked ballots could debut in 2020 presidential primaries

First it was 20, then 30, and now, predictions for the Democratic presidential nomination have become less about how many candidates will run than just few will not.

And with each exploratory committee announcement, a new wave of worry washes over the upcoming elections, reinvigorating talk of vote-splitting, wasted votes and ‘spoiled’ results. It’s the same storyline that swamped the 2016 nomination for the Republican party. The crowded contest split supporters such that many of the most significant state primaries and caucuses were won by the smallest of margins and often by a candidate without widespread support, evidenced by FairVote research contrasting actual outcomes and polls that included backup choices.

Add in Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz as a potential independent and the already stormy seas swirl to a tsunami-level disaster, at least according to Democratic leaders anxious about the prospect presented by a three (or more) way race after 2016.

How to steer the sinking ship out of 2016 territory? Turn to ranked choice voting.

As explained in a joint editorial authored by U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (Md), Equal Citizens’ Adam Eichen and FairVote CEO and President Rob Richie, RCV can easily and effectively allow primary and caucus states alike to choose a strong, broadly supported nominee that can stand up to a Republican incumbent in the 2020 race.

It’s not just a murky mirage of hypotheticals. A bill under consideration in the New Hampshire state house clearly outlines how RCV could work in the first-in-the-nation primary come 2020.

As proposed by reform group Equal Citizens and submitted by state Rep. Ellen Read, RCV could become a focal point of the presidential race through New Hampshire’s primary, revealing the true majority winner while also awarding remaining delegates to accurately reflect voters’ choices. Voters would no longer have to fear their votes will be wasted - as was the case for 13.8 percent of those who cast ballots in the 2016 Republican presidential primary for candidates who failed to meet the minimum threshold - while similar candidates could compete without splitting supporters.

While New Hampshire legislators consider the bill, their neighbors in Maine might follow suit should the state make the leap to a primary for 2020. Meanwhile, caucus states can use RCV for absentee voters as a means to meet the DNC’s new mandates for improving access and turnout in the upcoming nominations.

As for the storm brewing aboard USS Schultz, ranked choice voting can again smooth out the seas to allow independent and third party candidates to compete - and voters to support them - without giving rise to the wave of vote-splitting fears. As Lee Drutman writes in a new column for Vox,

Voters who like Schultz can vote for him, and then indicate their second-preference for either Trump or the Democrat. Once Schultz is eliminated, his voters’ second preferences will transfer to the remaining candidates. The winning candidate will earn a true majority. No spoiler.”

Drutman’s advocacy comes amid a surge of support for ranked choice voting, not just in the halls of power but also a host of columnists and academic leaders in the election reform realm. Even if ranked ballots fail to make their debut in the upcoming presidential nomination process, the resulting tidal wave of split votes and unsupported outcomes will only make the case that much stronger for the next cycle.


Illustration by Mikhaila Markham

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