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.

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