Voices & Choices

Ranked choice voting offers improvements to presidential primaries

Ranked choice voting offers improvements to presidential primaries

As the last few presidential primary election cycles have shown, the selection of a major party’s nominee has a profound impact on the American political ecosystem. Recent primary cycles have seen increasingly crowded fields, in which outsiders such as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have either won the nomination or gained considerable traction, thus generating interest in how to ensure that candidates earn true majority support from their party before becoming its nominee. As FairVote’s Rob Richie, Ben Oestericher, Deb Otis, and Jeremy Seitz-Brown explore in an article for Politics and Governance, the use of ranked choice voting (RCV) ballots in primaries both preserves the right of voters to elect their party’s nominee and encourages candidates to build a majority coalition within their party and reflect its values in order to secure the nomination. 

Prior to 1968, voters had little to no involvement in the nominee selection process. Instead, congressmen and party elites met behind closed doors to determine party platforms and nominees, and while the role of voters expanded throughout the twentieth century, the actual selection of nominees was still up to delegates who typically were not bound to vote for the winner of their state’s primaries. The result was a nomination process that encouraged candidates to build support among a broad range of coalitions within their party rather than within a narrow faction of voters. While a reform in 1968 binding delegates to the results of their state primaries improved the agency of voters, it also removed this incentive for candidates to compromise and unify their party. The use of RCV in presidential primaries enables voters to produce a nominee who both reflects the will of the people and represents a broad range of the party’s interests. Because candidates may need not just the first-choice votes of their most ardent supporters but also the second- or third-choice votes of perhaps more moderate voters, they are encouraged to reach outside of their base and attempt to meet the needs of multiple interest groups within their party, just as they were when party elites chose the nominee. However, RCV also ensures that voters retain the deciding power in presidential primaries. 

In 2020, five state Democratic parties used RCV ballots in primary elections and caucuses. Among other benefits, RCV was shown to reduce the number of “wasted votes,” or votes cast for candidates who did not pass the 15% threshold necessary to win delegates or had already dropped out of the race. More than seven million votes were cast for such candidates in non-RCV state Democratic primaries, while states using RCV saw no votes counted towards these candidates. Additionally, nearly three out of every four voters ranked multiple candidates in RCV states, and more than 99.7% of RCV voters cast a valid ballot. The efficacy of RCV in these five Democratic primaries in 2020 shows that RCV is no longer a hypothetical reform. It is a tested and successful method that ensures voters always have their voices heard and can truly vote their preference. In 2024, FairVote anticipates that all five RCV states will continue to use RCV following its success in 2020, with the addition of Maine and quite possibly several other state Democratic and Republican parties. While the 2024 presidential primaries are a long way off, both major parties have reason to expand the role of RCV in their nomination processes and can look to 2020 for an example of all they have to gain. 

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