June 2020

Ranked Choice Voting: The Solution to the Presidential Primary Predicament

The 2020 presidential primary will go down in history for many reasons, the most important being that a global pandemic interrupted American life, including our democratic processes. 

Though this unique primary season is nearing and end, familiar problems plagued this cycle, especially in Democratic primaries; in states with early or absentee voting (also referred to as vote by mail) over two million votes were wasted on candidates who had withdrawn from the race; tabulation technology cracked under pressure, delaying election results and delegate allocation; delegates were awarded disproportionately to votes received, lessening the influence of voters. 

These problems aren’t unique to Democratic contests. In 2016, over half a million votes were wasted in Republican contests. In states where delegates are pledged in a more winner-take-all fashion, candidates won delegates in higher proportion to votes received, often on a slim margin of victory. 

Fortunately, a better voting system exists: ranked choice voting (also referred to as RCV, Instant Runoff Voting, IRV). 

In practice, ranked choice voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. Valuing second and third place preference helps prevent spoiled ballots and keeps voters enfranchised. It also helps lead to fair delegate allocation. In states where a threshold of delegates is needed to receive support, RCV helps provide a clearer picture of candidate viability. In states where delegates are pledged in a more winner-take-all style, RCV ensures the winner has 50-percent support. 

Ranked choice voting is not a newly trending voting system. Importantly, strong evidence of positive impact exists. Democratic contests in Nevada, Alaska, Wyoming, Kansas, and Hawaii that used RCV in their primaires experienced double or triple their normal turnout levels (which broke records in every state) and there were virtually no wasted votes. In the states and 17 localities that use RCV, the system leads to more civil campaigns and reduces election costs. It’s some states, using RCV in combination with mobile voting has helped parties maintain the tradition of nominating conventions while respecting social distancing. 

Innaction will result in another election cycle with similar problems, which is unideal regardless of party. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Policymakers, party leaders, and election officials should weigh the evidence of RCV as a commonsense, effective solution and lay the groundwork for change now. Doing so will ensure fair and more representative elections for decades to come. 

Other research