How Ranked Choice Voting Could Make the 2020 Election More Democratic

The landmark voting reform is quickly spreading across the country—and could have a major impact on contests in 2020.

Adam Eichen November 4, 2019

Ranked choice voting is poised for a breakout year. (Photo by Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

In Sep­tem­ber, Rep. Jamie Raskin intro­duced the Ranked Choice Vot­ing Act in Con­gress. If adopt­ed, the leg­is­la­tion would man­date the use of ranked choice vot­ing (RCV) for House and Sen­ate elections. 

By 2021, if reformers hit their mark, approximately 20 million Americans could live in a jurisdiction that uses some form of RCV.

The bill doesn’t cur­rent­ly have the votes to pass through the House, but the lack of estab­lish­ment sup­port obscures an excit­ing truth: Out­side the belt­way, RCV is on a track to become the next major wide­spread democ­ra­cy reform. And, ahead of the 2020 elec­tions, reform­ers have an unprece­dent­ed oppor­tu­ni­ty to take this for­mer­ly fringe idea mainstream.

RCV allows vot­ers to rank can­di­dates in order of pref­er­ence on the bal­lot. If no can­di­date receives a major­i­ty of first place votes, the last place vote-get­ter is elim­i­nat­ed and their vot­ers are real­lo­cat­ed accord­ing to sec­ond place pref­er­ences. This process con­tin­ues until one can­di­date sur­pass­es 50%. 

RCV bet­ter guar­an­tees that every vote counts, elim­i­nates the spoil­er” effect that occurs when third par­ty can­di­dates run for office, and ensures that, in a crowd­ed field, no one wins with mere­ly a frac­tion of the vote. It also decreas­es neg­a­tive campaigning.

The road to main­stream appeal begins in New York. Tomor­row — Tues­day, Novem­ber 5th — New York City will vote on a bal­lot ini­tia­tive to bring RCV to pri­ma­ry and spe­cial munic­i­pal elections. 

Accord­ing to data pro­vid­ed to In These Times by elec­toral reform group Fair­Vote, over 4 mil­lion Amer­i­cans cur­rent­ly live in a juris­dic­tion that uses or will use ranked choice vot­ing. A vic­to­ry in NYC — a city with over 8 mil­lion res­i­dents — would triple that num­ber. It would also expose the reform to the many jour­nal­ists and pun­dits who live in the city, which could bet­ter prime them to cov­er it mov­ing forward. 

Wide­spread com­pe­ten­cy in report­ing about RCV will become crit­i­cal. Fol­low­ing the NYC bal­lot ini­tia­tive, up to five Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial cau­cus­es — Neva­da, Alas­ka, Hawaii, Kansas and Wyoming — will like­ly use RCV to deter­mine con­ven­tion del­e­gate allo­ca­tion. (In the pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry, votes would be re-allo­cat­ed until all remain­ing can­di­dates gar­ner above the del­e­gate thresh­old set by a polit­i­cal party.) 

Though not all vot­ers in these states would use an RCV bal­lot in 2020 (Neva­da intends to restrict RCV to those who vote ear­ly), seam­less imple­men­ta­tion will great­ly increase famil­iar­i­ty with the reform. After its first usage in Maine last year, almost three quar­ters of the elec­torate found the process rel­a­tive­ly easy to nav­i­gate. All the while, media cov­er­age will edu­cate those out-of-state.

While the state Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ties have approved the use of RCV in these states, there is still some uncer­tain­ty about where it will ulti­mate­ly be imple­ment­ed. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee (DNC) has yet to give final approval to each plan.

Iowa and Neva­da had pro­posed allow­ing vir­tu­al cau­cus­es via the tele­phone. The pro­pos­al raised secu­ri­ty con­cerns about hack­ing and the DNC reject­ed it,” Fair­Vote CEO Rob Richie said to In These Times. Neva­da Democ­rats, though, still plan to have ear­ly vot­ing with what amounts to ranked choice bal­lots. We expect the par­ty to accept this new plan

The DNC has recent­ly approved RCV in Hawaii and Kansas, which are mov­ing for­ward on plans to hold vote-by-mail pri­maries and use a tra­di­tion­al RCV tal­ly in each con­gres­sion­al dis­trict. Accord­ing to Richie, Wyoming and Alas­ka Democ­rats have for­mal­ly noti­fied the DNC of their intent to use RCV in a sim­i­lar way and expect approval for use in 2020. And because of the use of vote-by-mail, FairVote’s Richie also projects cau­cus par­tic­i­pa­tion will great­ly exceed that of 2016, which saw approx­i­mate­ly 175,000 caucus-goers.

If the DNC and state par­ties work togeth­er to ensure the usage of RCV in these cau­cus­es, it would ensure a more demo­c­ra­t­ic allo­ca­tion of del­e­gates—after all, the DNC requires can­di­dates to sur­pass 15% of the vote to receive any del­e­gates, inevitably lead­ing to many wast­ed votes in a crowd­ed field. 

Accom­pa­ny­ing efforts to reform the pri­ma­ry, a hand­ful of pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates — Bernie Sanders, Andrew Yang, Tul­si Gab­bard, Bill Weld, Michael Ben­net and Mar­i­anne Williamson — have gone on record sup­port­ing RCV. By doing so, these politi­cians have sig­naled to their mil­lions of sup­port­ers that the reform is worth pursuing.

In August, Maine Gov. Janet Mills allowed a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion ranked choice vot­ing bill to become law with­out her sig­na­ture, delay­ing its imple­men­ta­tion until mid-2020. This pre­cludes the adop­tion of RCV in the upcom­ing pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry, but per­mits it in the gen­er­al elec­tion. As a result, the 2020 elec­tion will mark the first time in U.S. his­to­ry a state will use RCV to elect the president. 

This — in addi­tion to the 2018 Maine law requir­ing RCV for fed­er­al elec­tions, includ­ing for Sen. Susan Collins’ con­test­ed re-elec­tion race — will gen­er­ate his­toric atten­tion for the reform.

Elec­tion day 2020 may also see two bal­lot ini­tia­tives to adopt RCV statewide in Mass­a­chu­setts and Alas­ka. The Attor­ney Gen­er­al in Mass­a­chu­setts has cer­ti­fied the lan­guage of the RCV ini­tia­tive, and Bay Staters are now col­lect­ing sig­na­tures to qual­i­fy for the ballot.

The effort in Alas­ka has been delayed, as Lieu­tenant Gov­er­nor Kevin Mey­er reject­ed the campaign’s pro­posed ini­tia­tive on the grounds that it vio­lat­ed the state’s sin­gle issue require­ment for ini­tia­tives (RCV was includ­ed along­side oth­er democ­ra­cy reforms in their pro­posed bal­lot lan­guage). Nev­er­the­less, a Supe­ri­or Court Judge ruled that sig­na­ture gath­er­ing can begin. The state is expect­ed to appeal this rul­ing to the Alaskan Supreme Court.

In both Alas­ka and Mass­a­chu­setts, should they make it to the bal­lot, advo­cates’ biggest obsta­cle is the lack of pop­u­lar knowl­edge about RCV. But with New York City, poten­tial­ly five cau­cus states, and Maine using the reform in high-pro­file con­tests over the next 12 months — and pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates endors­ing it — momen­tum is on their side. 

By 2021, if reform­ers hit their mark, approx­i­mate­ly 20 mil­lion Amer­i­cans could live in a juris­dic­tion that uses some form of RCV. Mil­lions more will have been exposed to the reform through the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. All of this, in turn, would lay the ground­work for future state-based mobi­liza­tions to advance RCV in states such as Col­orado, New Hamp­shire, Con­necti­cut and Ver­mont where activists are cur­rent­ly build­ing cam­paigns, as well as for fed­er­al legislation. 

Ranked choice vot­ing is not the panacea to our democ­ra­cy cri­sis. And state-based reform has its lim­its — fed­er­al reform is need­ed to bring our democ­ra­cy into the 21st cen­tu­ry. But ranked choice vot­ing will undoubt­ed­ly solve many of the unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic ten­den­cies root­ed in our cur­rent elec­toral system.

The path towards a bet­ter democ­ra­cy is now open. The only ques­tion is if we will take it. 

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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