Ranked Choice Voting and Primary Reform: Making Politics Work Again

 /  Jan. 26, 2021, 8:50 p.m.

RCV Flowchart
A flowchart demonstrating the process for evaluating ranked choice voting.

Over the past decade, American politics has increasingly left the public angry and dissatisfied with their leaders and the two parties that they represent. In a September 2020 poll, 60 percent of American voters said that a viable third party was needed in American politics in order to have a working political system. These numbers are not surprising; since 2012 they have been relatively consistent, as gridlock in national politics reached new heights and a hyperpolarized congress debilitated the Obama administration, causing years of steady decline in legislative productivity. 

This polarization and gridlock has had the two almost contradictory effects of making voters yearn for compromise, while at the same time increasing partisanship among the public itself. In a 2019 poll, desire for finding “compromise and common ground” and desire for “standing up to the other side” both received 80 percent support. These are the effects of the perverse structure of American politics—one which requires pragmatism and compromise in order to work effectively, yet actively encourages partisanship and polarization. If we really want to address deep dissatisfaction with politics, we need to transform that structure. It includes everything from the rules governing legislative procedures to gerrymandering and geographic self-selection, but here I’ll focus on two crucial reforms to our election process: ranked choice voting and primary reform.

Rank the Vote

Ranked choice voting (RCV) takes into account voter’s second, third, and so on favorite candidates instead of just their most favored. This is not the case with our current system of plurality voting. In an RCV election with five candidates, voters would rank their candidates from 1 through 5, though they do not have to rank all five. When tallying the votes, the first choices are counted, and the lowest vote-getter is eliminated. Their voters, in turn, have their second choice counted as part of the vote, and the process is repeated until one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, as seen at the top of the article.

RCV has several benefits over the current US plurality voting system, where the candidate with the most first choice votes automatically wins, barring some majority runoff states like Georgia. The first, and most obvious, is that any winner of an RCV election must receive a majority of the votes. This would bar unpopular candidates with solid minority support from winning outright while being the last choice of a majority of voters. A similar scenario occurred in the 2016 GOP presidential primaries, where then-candidate Donald Trump won New Hampshire with around 35 percent of the vote despite having the lowest favorability of any candidate among all voters.

Another benefit that would have a huge effect on United States politics is the elimination of the third party spoiler effect, or vote splitting. This occurs when a minority candidate draws votes away from a major contender in an election, causing that candidate to lose when they otherwise would have won without the minority candidate. The most prominent example of this happened in the 2000 presidential election, when Green Party candidate Ralph Nader received almost 100 thousand votes in Florida, a state in which Repbulican nominee George W. Bush beat Democratic nominee Al Gore by only 537 votes. 

Some have contended that third party candidates such as Jill Stein or Jo Jorgensen spoiled various states for their ideological counterparts by receiving more votes than the margin between the two major candidates. However, exit polls have shown that most modern third-party voters would not vote if they had to choose between the two major candidates, calling into question the equivalence of a Green Party vote and a Democratic vote. 

This data implies that fear of the spoiler effect has driven away most potential third-party voters to the major parties—all except those who refuse to vote for Democrats or Republicans on principle. RCV, by allowing second and third choices to count, would allow voters to support third-party candidates that align more closely with their values without leading to the victory of their least favored candidate. This would allow the United States’ self-identified Independents, which make up roughly 40 percent of voters, to branch out from the two-party system they have been forced to participate in. Increased support for third parties would in turn lead to less gridlock, as parties would be deprived of outright majorities and be forced to compromise and work together in order to accomplish their goals.

One final and less considered benefit of RCV is its ability to curtail America’s extremely negative and polarized election campaigns. In their book The Politics Industry, Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter argue that in an RCV system “candidates have to compete to be the second or even third choice of a much broader set of voters.” One candidate launching negative attack ads against their opponent makes sense in a simple majority election, but it constitutes political suicide if their opponent’s most ardent supporters are potential second or third round votes. Bad faith attack ads and hostile rhetoric would only serve to alienate their opponent’s base, making them much less likely to win in the later rounds of the election, forcing candidates to moderate their messaging and campaign directly to their opponent’s supporters. Less hostile rhetoric would allow politicians to make pragmatic compromises without betraying campaign promises to block the other side at all costs. 

Although RCV has considerable benefits, it would not be enough to break the duopoly of US politics. Both the DCCC and NRCC regularly blacklist consultants who work for primary challengers, and would most probably do the same to any third-party candidates capable of winning a ranked-choice election. Third parties might achieve some level of prominence on the national level for their presidential candidates, but they do not have the infrastructure or the money required to mount realistic challenges to federal or state legislative seats. Local candidates from either party can often count on receiving money from their state or national party funds, which is not true for independent challengers. This lack of campaign funding for third-party candidates is a significant barrier to entry. 

Additionally, eliminating spoiler effects will not change the deep-seated preferences of American voters towards one of two parties. People born and raised in a two-party system will continue to support their preferred party, and considering that parents play an outsized role in the formation of political behavior, that preference will not disappear in a generation. While the two-party system still exists, we must work within it to give voters more choices so that the truly best candidates may win. We can do this by revamping party primaries.

Poisonous Primaries

The main problem with the current US election system is its heavy reliance on primaries and subsequent exclusion of large parts of the electorate from the decision-making process. Until 1972, nominees for each party were determined by party elites at conventions, and primary elections had very little influence. After the first real use of primaries, however, the DNC excluded Republican and Independent voters from participation. This was intended to prevent ‘crossover voting,’ where members of one party sabotaged another party’s primary to position their preferred candidate against a weaker opponent in the general election. In restricting primaries to only party affiliated voters, however, the DNC excluded moderate Independents from the decision-making process, gradually resulting in more ideological and uncompromising nominees, especially for congressional elections. 

Republican primaries underwent similar changes, and today 60 and 70 percent of Republican and Democratic primaries respectively are closed to Independents. A larger overarching problem is that a small number of party affiliated voters actually participate in primaries: in 2012, even though 58 percent of age-eligible Americans voted in the general election, only 16 percent voted in party primaries. Polling has shown that the subsection of party-affiliated voters who participate in primaries is much more partisan and ideological than the overall party. This system often leaves voters feeling they have no good options in the general election as the two major nominees are very unpopular and chosen by small sections of the electorate.

The results of such low turnout rates in primaries has the largest consequences in so-called ‘safe seats’ in state and national congressional races, where the nominee from one party is virtually guaranteed to win. In such districts, the party primary serves as the real election, with much more money spent on it than in the general. In 2020, only about forty-one of the 435 seats in the US House were considered in play. These seats are incredibly important as their outcomes determine the overall balance of the House. 

For the 394 representatives who represent safe seats, however, the only possible obstacle to their reelection lies in their primary. Thus, safe-seat representatives tend to be more aggressive towards the other party, refusing to compromise on policy out of fear of seeming too weak in the eyes of their base. This phenomenon helps explain why Republican politicians continued to unequivocally support Trump through the various scandals of his presidency. In polling averages, while his nationwide approval rating was at 41 percent, his approval rating within his own party hovered around the mid-to-high 80s. Given that primary voters are generally more ideological, Trump’s approval rating among Republican primary voters was likely even higher. 

To pander to the most fervent Republicans in their district, safe-seat Republicans continued to support Trump despite his controversial actions. This was seen just a few weeks ago: the largely symbolic vote on whether to reject the electoral votes of Arizona in the 2020 election pursuant to Trump’s false claims of election fraud received only six Republican votes in the Senate, but a whopping 121 votes in the House. The House of Representatives generally contains the most partisan and polarized members of each party due to its gerrymandered safe districts, such as democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or QAnon promoter Marjorie Taylor Greene.

To move away from such polarization, it is not enough to simply make primaries open again. Even if Independents were allowed to vote in every state’s primary, not many would, since only the most enthusiastic and ideological voters participate. Our goal should instead be to reduce the importance of primaries themselves, mainly by allowing for more than one nominee from each party to make it to the general election, and to implement ranked choice voting in the general election in order to prevent minority winners and spoiler effects. 

There are a few ways to do this. One would be to allow for the top three finishers in each primary to compete in a general election. Another method could be ‘jungle primaries’: open and nonpartisan primaries that allow a select number of finishers to move on to the general. Allowing for more variety in the general election would be a boon for both wings of each party. Moderates could qualify for the general election and then specifically campaign to the middle, and more radical candidates like Senator Bernie Sanders could spread their populist messages to the entire electorate and establish broad working-class coalitions. The jungle primary’s only downfall is the possibility of a spoiler effect, where members of one party crowd each other out and hand the two general election nominations to the other party, but it can be remedied by simply increasing the number of finishers.

Primary reform would also further encourage the entry of third-party candidates. Since the fundraising for each party would be split between two or three candidates, the minimum amount of money needed to be competitive in any given race would be cut in half. Shifting decision-making power from ideological primary voters to the general electorate would make candidates less uncompromising and more pragmatic in their approach to governance, reducing the chances of gridlock and government shutdowns.

Blueprints for Reform

Ranked choice voting and primary reform may both seem like a pipe dream, but they have already been passed in parts of the country. In Maine, following the 2010 and 2014 spoiled elections of Governor Paul LePage, who won with only 38 and 48 percent of the vote, a ballot initiative for ranked choice voting passed in 2016. After years of lawsuits backed by both parties, it was finally put into use in the 2020 general election, where Green Party candidate Lisa Savage was able to mount a realistic campaign for Senate without handing the election to her Republican opponent. Many mayoral and city council races across the country have also used ranked voting for more than a decade.

In California in 2010, following years of gridlock and polarization in the state legislature, then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic legislators pushed jungle primary reforms into effect, allowing the top two finishers in an open nonpartisan primary to continue to the general election. Since then, partisanship, especially in the state legislature, has decreased, with more moderates elected and better legislative approval ratings. Washington and Nebraska also have similar primaries, and more states are slated to consider such reforms in the future. 

Political partisanship and gridlock are deeply embedded in the fabric of this country. Long term developments such as geographical self-selection, the rise of for-profit national news, and the proliferation of social media bubbles have all combined to pit Americans against each other and debilitate our government. Election reform won’t change the ways people feel or magically inject understanding and compassion into our politics. But what it will do is allow people to vote for what they believe in and lend less credence to the most polarized among us. The least we can do is to stop making election machinery part of the problem and start designing it to be part of the solution.

This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, which can be found here. No changes were made to the original image, which is attributed to Zerodamage and can be found here.

Ólafur Stefàn Oddsson Cricco


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