CNN Should Have Asked About Ranked-Choice Voting. It’s Not Too Late.

For bold policy solutions to have a chance, we first need voting reform.

Adam Ginsburg, FairVote

Left to right: Democratic presidential candidates Marianne Williamson, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, former Maryland congressman John Delaney, and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock take the stage at the Democratic Presidential Debate on July 30 in Detroit. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The second round of Democratic presidential debates continues tonight in Detroit. We at FairVote certainly hope that CNN’s moderators ask the 10 candidates on stage this evening about electoral reform and ranked choice voting (RCV).

RCV would ensure that the crowded primary field ultimately produces a nominee with true majority support.

It’s an especially important topic, considering six Democratic primaries and caucuses will use RCV next year — and also because RCV would ensure that the crowded primary field ultimately produces a nominee with true majority support. 

These debates provide more than two hours of thoughtful plans on complicated issues that could well be dead on arrival in a highly polarized Congress consumed by partisanship. RCV would help provide the structural change that would incentivize politicians of all stripes to push beyond our current dysfunction, seek consensus and solve problems.

While democracy issues did not come up during Tuesday night’s discussion, just in case moderators Dana Bash, Don Lemon and Jake Tapper — or any of us — need a last-minute primer, here’s what we already know about the 2020 Democratic hopefuls and RCV. 

The candidates

By FairVote’s count, there are four Democratic candidates who actively advocate for RCV, five candidates who are supportive and two candidates who are receptive to the method. Only two candidates have expressed indifference. The other 12 major Democratic candidates have not commented publicly on RCV. 

Additionally, Republican presidential hopeful Bill Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts, has backed RCV. While it’s too early to know who will be the nominees of other parties like the Green Party and Libertarian Party, we can anticipate their support for RCV; in 2016, for example, both Gary Johnson and Jill Stein backed RCV.

Advocates (candidates who have a policy pushing ranked choice voting):

  • Andrew Yang, entrepreneur: Yang has called on the DNC to adopt a ranked-choice voting model for all democratic primaries [and to] [w]ork with Congress to adopt ranked-choice voting for all federal elections.” He has posted this plan on Twitter and pushed it in multiple forums.
  • Michael Bennet, Colorado U.S. Senator: Bennet, as part of his comprehensive governmental reform plan, has called for the federal government to support state and local governments that transition to ranked choice voting.”
  • Seth Moulton, Massachusetts U.S. Congressman: As a congressman, Moulton publicly indicated strong support for RCV, saying, If the Founding Fathers had understood ranked choice voting, they would have put it in the Constitution.”
  • Mike Gravel, former Alaska U.S. Senator: Gravel has made ranked choice voting a key tenet of his policy platform, calling for the federal government to institute a ranked-choice voting procedure for any and all elections currently functioning on the first-past-the-post system.”
  • Bill Weld, former Massachusetts Governor: When Weld was recently asked about RCV at a forum, his response was unwavering and instant: I love ranked choice voting.”

Supporters (candidate who have expressed positive sentiment toward RCV):

  • Bernie Sanders, Vermont U.S. Senator: In 2007 testimony to Vermont’s state legislature, Sanders indicated his support for a bill to establish RCV for U.S. Senate and U.S. House elections, announcing that the public should Count me in as someone who strongly supports Instant Runoff.” 
  • Kirsten Gillibrand, New York U.S. Senator: At a June New Hampshire forum hosted by Equal Citizens, Gillibrand said, I support ranked choice voting. I think it’s a very interesting reform that’s worked in some places well.”
  • Marianne Williamson, Author: Numerous times, Williamson has indicated support for RCV, saying I think ranked choice voting is great,” and tweeting If only we had ranked choice voting.”
  • Pete Buttigieg, Mayor of South Bend, Indiana: According to Equal Citizens, Buttigieg supports ranked choice voting. He has also indicated that he would sign a RCV bill if it came across his desk as president. 
  • Tulsi Gabbard, Hawaii U.S. Congresswoman: At a New Hampshire event, Gabbard was asked about eliminating the electoral college and utilizing a ranked voting system for president. She indicated her support for RCV, saying RCV can make sure our voices are heard accurately and represented through our elections.” (The 30:48 mark in the video.)
  • Cory Booker, New Jersey U.S. Senator: Booker has indicated support for RCV for many years. He told a Voter Choice Massachusetts activist on July 12 that he supports RCV and won an RCV election in college.

Receptive (candidates who are open to adopting RCV):

  • Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts U.S. Senator: In a Vox podcast, Warren cited the momentum behind RCV as evidence that democracy itself is reinventing,” also saying that “”there’s a lot to be said for [RCV].”
  • Beto O’Rourke, former Texas U.S. Congressman: O’Rourke was asked at a May town hall in New Hampshire where he stood on RCV, and he responded with an informed discussion of the ways in which RCV leads to a more civil campaign. We’ve got all these great candidates running right now. We’ve got to do everything in our power not to demean or denigrate or weaken them, compromise them, in any way that would make them anything less than the strongest possible candidate against Trump,” he said. Ranked choice voting provides another inducement to making sure you don’t do that to those other candidates. … It would not hurt in this very divided, highly polarized democracy to employ [RCV] as a matter of course going forward.”

Indifferent (candidates who are ambivalent about RCV):

  • Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota U.S. Senator: When Ellen Read, a New Hampshire activist, asked Klobuchar about RCV, Klobuchar’s response was described in this article as noncommittal.” A Klobuchar staffer did note that Minnesota, Klobuchar’s home state, has a very strong record with RCV.
  • Bill de Blasio, Mayor of New York City: De Blasio was most recently quoted as saying, The jury’s still out on ranked-choice voting…I think it has strengths and I think it has weaknesses. And I’d sure like to see a lot more research on it. But there’s a lot of people who believe it might be very beneficial in New York City.” Accordingly, it should be noted that he has provided tacit support for (or at least no active opposition against) the New York City charter commission’s decision to place RCV for primary and special elections on the 2019 ballot.

It is clear that a large slice of the Democratic primary field is open to adopting ranked choice voting. In fact, we don’t know of any candidate for president in 2020 who opposes RCV, and please let us know if you hear of candidates taking a position.

Now, let’s look at the states that adopted RCV in the candidate selection process.

The states

After the contentious 2016 primary fight, the Democratic National Committee called on its state affiliates to make the presidential candidate selection process more accessible to voters. Six states — Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas, Nevada, Iowa, and Wyoming— will turn to RCV to heed that call. Here’s how:

In Iowa, the state Democratic Party has proposed a virtual caucus’ which would allow voters unable to participate in the Feb. 3 in-person caucus to cast their support over the phone or online via ranked choice voting. In both the online and over-the-phone plans, caucus-goers will be able to rank five preferred candidates. For the online component, voters should simply be able to state their ranked preferences by entering their rankings on an interface. For the over-the-phone component, an operator will read the candidate names in alphabetical order, giving phone-caucus-goers adequate time to respond with their preferences.

According to the plan, there would be six designated times to virtually caucus” in the five days preceding the election — with the sixth virtual caucus” occurring at the same time as the in-person caucus, 7:00 P.M. on February 3rd.

In Nevada, early voters and those who are voting-by-phone will have the opportunity to rank their top preferences. While the details are still being ironed out, voters will be afforded multiple opportunities to confirm their selections the in-person and over-the-phone manifestations.

In Kansas, the state Democratic Party has ditched its traditional caucus in favor of a ranked choice voting primary. According to state party secretary George Hanna, adopting ranked choice voting will not actually be much of a shock for Kansans — because RCV resembles Kansas’s typical caucus process.

Rank[ed] choice voting essentially is caucusing by paper. You are going to pick your first choice of the candidates that are available, your next choice … and rank them.” Hanna said.

In Alaska and Hawaii, voters will show up on primary day and use ranked choice voting to cast their ballots. Wyoming Democrats, while they have not yet submitted a formal proposal, have indicated that they plan to follow a similar path.

Although the preliminary proposals indicate some states plan to implement RCV in slightly different manners, all plans adhere to the rules set by the Democratic Party: all candidates above the 15% threshold will accrue delegates. Accordingly, as FairVote Senior Fellow David Daley put it, using RCV means that last-place candidates will be eliminated and backers of those candidates will have their vote count toward their next choice until all remaining candidates are above the 15% vote threshold to win delegates.”

While these plans are all preliminary until they are formally accepted by the DNC, it is heartening to see ranked choice voting adopted as a viable alternative to the current winner-take-all system — especially in a field this crowded.

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Adam Ginsburg is a communications intern at FairVote, a nonpartisan champion of electoral reforms.
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