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

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. 

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Adam Eichen is Executive Director 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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