Ranked Choice Voting is a Better Way to Elect Presidential Nominees

Tens of thousands of Massachusetts Democrats have been electrified by the announcement last Saturday that Senator Elizabeth Warren, who easily won her re-election last year, has officially launched her Presidential campaign. The following day, Senator Amy Klobuchar officially proclaimed her candidacy in her home state of Minnesota. They are entering a field that already has eight declared candidates, including five women, and that is expected to grow to 20 or more. Any crowded field is destined to split support among primary voters and yield winners with just a small plurality of votes.

Decisions in the shadow of vote splitting

Votes will split among women, progressives, centrists, people of color—any which way you look at it, there is no way in a field this large to know who is the strongest and most popular candidate. The path to victory for Sen. Warren and other hopefuls can only be a horse race. The first to make it to the finish line, no matter how small the vote share, will prevail and be the party nominee in 2020.

A nominee could win with more opposition than support within the party, and the outcome decided based on who and how many compete, rather than the choice of the majority of voters. In 2016, the widely split field of Republican hopefuls resulted in a nominee that did not have majority support in most of the primaries and caucuses.

How delegates are won

Presidential Democratic primary rules allow candidates to receive delegates in proportion to the share of votes they receive as they move through the states, some of which hold caucuses and some of which, like Massachusetts, hold primaries. But only candidates with 15 percent or more of votes at each stage will be viable to receive delegates.

In some caucus states, like Iowa, voters who vote for a candidate under the threshold can “walk” to their next preference candidate and have their vote continue to count. But most states, including Massachusetts, don’t allow voters’ second preferences to count. So if the one candidate you vote for doesn't get 15%, your vote does not contribute to determining the delegate totals -- except insofar as you helped dilute the percentages received by all candidates, further reducing the chance of each ballot counting -- hardly a consolation.

Why can't primary states have the same ability as caucus states to ensure every ballot counts and every voice is heard?

They could, actually, by adopting Ranked Choice Voting.

What if we used Ranked Choice Voting?

If Ranked Choice Voting were used to select the party nominee, Sen. Warren and the rest of the presidential field would be able to build a coalition of support among their base and those who would prefer them as a second or third choice. Voters would be allowed to vote their hearts, knowing their second choice would count if their first choice didn’t prevail through the initial round.

By allowing votes cast for candidates with less than 15 percent in each of the state’s primaries or caucuses to transfer to their second or possibly third choice, then the eventual field of nominees heading into the national convention in the summer of 2020 would be the strongest and most popular among them. If women wanted to elect a woman, their votes could pool, rather than split, to help achieve that outcome. The same is true for those who want to elect someone of a certain political ideology, or race, or set of issues.

Moreover, a process that required candidates to reach out for second choices would incentivize a more respectful and civil campaign. Traditional attack campaigns don’t work under RCV. We’ve seen how RCV changes the tone of the campaigns for the better. And we’ve seen how it elects candidates with broad popular support. In a time of growing divisiveness and polarization, RCV is a way to ensure winning candidates appeal to a broad cross-section of voters, not just their base.

Finding the strongest candidate

RCV would incentivize a whole different kind of race, and strengthen—rather than weaken through a season of mudslinging campaigns—the top candidates competing in the summer convention. In turn, the prevailing candidate will enter the General Election with a stronger and more united coalition.

If the Democratic party adopted RCV as its method to select the nominee for President in 2020, the results would represent the will of the majority of its voters and thus make for a stronger candidate. For those who believe Sen. Warren — or any other candidate — is that candidate, RCV is the best way to demonstrate that strength.


Elizabeth Warren photo 1: Matt Johnson from Omaha, Nebraska, United States [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Warren_IMG_3500_(46608350341).jpg

Elizabeth Warren photo 2: Marc Nozell from Merrimack, New Hampshire, USA [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Elizabeth_Warren_in_NH_(45805266795).jpg

Amy Klobuchar photo: Lorie Shaull from Washington, United States [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Amy_Klobuchar_(46330784464)_(a).jpg

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