The Case for Using Ranked Choice Voting in the 2020 Democratic Presidential Primaries

To make the 2020 primary campaign more democratic, we should demand a system that takes all voter preferences into account. That system is ranked choice voting.

Adam Eichen April 1, 2019

Want more democracy in the primaries? Join the movement for ranked choice voting. (Staff photo by Jill Brady/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

Sen. Bernie Sanders stands as the cur­rent fron­trun­ner of announced can­di­dates for the 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion. Giv­en his small donor fundrais­ing capac­i­ty, abil­i­ty to draw mas­sive crowds, and impres­sive ear­ly polling results, the left wing of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has ample rea­son to be hopeful.

Ranked choice voting (RCV) has a long, albeit niche history in the United States.

Yet, there is a grow­ing pos­si­bil­i­ty that a Sanders pri­ma­ry vic­to­ry may be unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic. As Sanders sup­port­ers know so well, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee sets rules that, whether inten­tion­al­ly or not, can dis­em­pow­er seg­ments of the pri­ma­ry elec­torate. And the way con­ven­tion del­e­gate allo­ca­tion rules are cur­rent­ly set, tens of thou­sands of pri­ma­ry vot­ers will like­ly have no influ­ence in the selec­tion of the 2020 pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee, which, strange­ly enough, might actu­al­ly ben­e­fit Sanders.

The Democ­rats allo­cate del­e­gates pro­por­tion­al­ly for all can­di­dates that gar­ner at least 15 per­cent of the vote in a giv­en state. In a high­ly com­pet­i­tive pri­ma­ry, though, few can­di­dates can meet this thresh­old as vot­ers are spread thin. As such, vot­ers who sup­port these can­di­dates will have their votes effec­tive­ly wast­ed. Ear­ly polls sug­gest upwards of 50 per­cent of the vote could fall into this cat­e­go­ry, as only Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden con­sis­tent­ly poll above 15 per­cent.

Sanders could poten­tial­ly win ear­ly states with a small plu­ral­i­ty — say 30 per­cent — with most pri­ma­ry vot­ers split among can­di­dates below the thresh­old. With enough nar­row vic­to­ries, and the inevitable win­now­ing of the field, Sanders could win enough del­e­gates under these con­di­tions to become the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­nee on the first bal­lot at the DNC convention.

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee and state Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ties make the rules, so Sanders is by no means to blame for this sit­u­a­tion. And bar­ring some major shift, whichev­er can­di­date even­tu­al­ly wins will suf­fer from an equal­ly appalling num­ber of wast­ed votes. For a mass move­ment-based can­di­da­cy that, at its core is about empow­er­ing Amer­i­cans in the polit­i­cal process, though, there is an onus to at least high­light the prob­lem and attempt to fix it, espe­cial­ly if a solu­tion is obtain­able — which it is.

To avoid unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic allo­ca­tion of del­e­gates, states could imple­ment ranked choice vot­ing for the pres­i­den­tial pri­maries.

Ranked choice vot­ing (RCV) has a long, albeit niche his­to­ry in the Unit­ed States, but its most famous appli­ca­tion is in Maine, where the sys­tem deter­mines fed­er­al elec­tions. RCV’s basic premise is sim­ple: allow vot­ers to rank can­di­dates in order of pref­er­ence, and if no can­di­date reach­es a giv­en thresh­old — in most cas­es a major­i­ty of the vote — the last place candidate’s votes are re-allo­cat­ed accord­ing to his or her vot­ers’ sec­ond choic­es. This process con­tin­ues until a can­di­date reach­es the thresh­old. In the pres­i­den­tial pri­maries, RCV would sequen­tial­ly real­lo­cate the votes of can­di­dates below 15 per­cent until all remain­ing can­di­dates are above 15 per­cent — min­i­miz­ing wast­ed votes.

Not all states will be able to imple­ment ranked choice vot­ing in time for the 2020 pri­ma­ry. For one, as Rob Richie, CEO of Fair­Vote, explains, Few states have a turnkey solu­tion to run RCV eas­i­ly in pri­maries”, as many states use out­dat­ed, RCV-incom­pat­i­ble vot­ing machine tech­nol­o­gy. More­over, accord­ing to Richie, state par­ties will have to include RCV pro­vi­sions in their final del­e­gate allo­ca­tion plans due by ear­ly May and any req­ui­site state laws must be passed — big tasks to accom­plish on a short time­frame. For­tu­nate­ly, there is a grow­ing RCV move­ment in key ear­ly pri­ma­ry and cau­cus states that may well clear these hurdles.

The most sub­stan­tial progress on RCV has been made in cau­cus states. Cau­cus­es, unlike pri­maries, are run entire­ly by the polit­i­cal par­ties, so no leg­is­la­tion is required to make a change. And state par­ties are ris­ing to the occa­sion. In Feb­ru­ary, the Iowa Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty pro­posed using ranked choice vot­ing for those who can­not attend the in-per­son cau­cus. The Neva­da, Hawaii and Alas­ka Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ties recent­ly fol­lowed suit, inte­grat­ing ranked choice vot­ing in their del­e­gate allo­ca­tion plans.

Cau­cus states are a log­i­cal place to win RCV first,” Richie notes. Vot­ers in cau­cus­es have more pow­er than in pri­maries because they get a back­up choice. Once cau­cus­es allowed ear­ly vot­ing to expand the elec­torate [after new DNC rules were issued], RCV was the best way to give them the same pow­er of a back­up choice.”

Leg­isla­tive efforts are also under­way to reform the Maine and New Hamp­shire pri­maries. On Wednes­day, March 20, dozens of Maine vot­ers arrived at the Maine Vet­er­ans and Legal Affairs Com­mit­tee to tes­ti­fy in sup­port of LD 1083, a bill to expand the state’s use of ranked choice vot­ing to the pres­i­den­tial pri­maries and gen­er­al elec­tion. LD 1083 has a real chance of pass­ing, as no one report­ed­ly tes­ti­fied against it and the bill has the sup­port of Sen­ate lead­er­ship.

Maine vot­ers have made it clear they sup­port hav­ing more choice in their elec­tions and the bill to allow that for the high­est office in the land looks on tar­get to pass in time for 2020,” for­mer Maine State Rep­re­sen­ta­tive and long­time RCV advo­cate Diane Rus­sell tells In These Times.

Across the bor­der in New Hamp­shire, a small but ded­i­cat­ed coali­tion of state leg­is­la­tors and vot­ers have advanced the issue. (In full dis­clo­sure, I have been help­ing lead this effort.) In Jan­u­ary, an omnibus RCV bill was intro­duced in the state house and was met with sig­nif­i­cant pub­lic sup­port. What was sched­uled to be a 30-minute hear­ing on the bill in the House Elec­tion Law Com­mit­tee last­ed almost two hours, with the vast major­i­ty of speak­ers tes­ti­fy­ing in favor of the mea­sure. The bill ulti­mate­ly failed to advance out of com­mit­tee, but there is now grow­ing inter­est in pass­ing a pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry bill in the state sen­ate.

Even if RCV fails to make it into the 2020 pri­ma­ry, ener­gy direct­ed towards this fight is hard­ly in vain. The push for RCV in pres­i­den­tial pri­maries is hap­pen­ing in the con­text of a grow­ing move­ment for RCV in state elec­tions. In Mass­a­chu­setts, for exam­ple, advo­cates are prepar­ing to put RCV on the bal­lot in 2020 — that is, if they don’t pres­sure state leg­is­la­tors to pass it first.

At this point, it is a com­plete unknown which pres­i­den­tial can­di­date RCV would ben­e­fit. But Sanders and his sup­port­ers should vocal­ly sup­port pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry RCV regard­less, for when it comes to democ­ra­cy, the goal must be inclu­sion over self-inter­est. And if Sanders were to win the pri­ma­ry, he could trans­form con­cerns about demo­c­ra­t­ic legit­i­ma­cy into a cam­paign pitch, point­ing to wast­ed votes as anoth­er exam­ple of the bro­ken democ­ra­cy we all need to fix. 

Adam Eichen is Cam­paigns Manger at Equal Cit­i­zens and co-author of Dar­ing Democ­ra­cy: Ignit­ing Pow­er, Mean­ing, and Con­nec­tion for the Amer­i­ca We Want (Bea­con Press, 2017) with Frances Moore Lap­pé. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @adameichen.
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