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Ranked Choice Primaries Could Strengthen Parties and Politics
There’s an fascinating political exercise going on in New York City right now. This year, for the first time, New York Democrats are using ranked choice voting in their primary to determine their party’s mayoral nominee (Bill de Blasio will be term-limiting out). It will be interesting to see what happens, and if a relative moderate like candidate Andrew Yang will be able to capitalize off of the situation.
Ranked choice voting is a ranking method that lets voters, in instances when more than two candidates are running for a single seat, select the preferential order of the individuals they want to represent them. In other words, instead of pledging their support for a single candidate, voters use a number system to rank the candidates on their ballot from who’d they most like to see win to who they’d least like to see win. Of course, if there are candidates that a voter absolutely doesn’t want to win, her or she can withhold a number assignment from them all together.
Once voting has closed, the ballots are counted for each voter’s top selection. If a candidate is ranked #1 by more than half of the voters, that candidate wins. If not, the candidate ranked #1 by the smallest number of voters is eliminated, and their votes are added to the totals of those voters’ #2 choice. This process of elimination continues until a single candidate is left with more than half of the accumulated votes… at which point he or she has won.
As you can see, the process is a little difficult to explain (which is probably why it isn’t used many places within in the U.S.), but it’s also an objectively fair system that takes into consideration the concerns of the institutions that employ them, which in the case of New York City’s mayoral race, is the local Democratic Party.
It’s worth noting that political primary elections aren’t bound by the same democratic processes as general elections. Their rules often aren’t set by public policy, but rather local party policy. Sometimes party nominees are decided by either open or closed primary voting. Other times they’re decided through caucuses, conventions, or even nomination meetings. Local parties have a good amount of latitude in setting the rules for selecting their nominees, and I think that’s a good thing.
After all, the parties’ interests should matter. Generally speaking, institutions are created and designed to shape its members to espouse and promote certain principles and qualities that advance the interests of the institution itself. That’s where institutional strength comes from. That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be room for diversity, dissent, and an evolution of ideas. Those things too can make an institution stronger and better, and have in many cases.
But what an institution shouldn’t and can’t be, if it is to serve its intended purpose, is a prominent platform from which any individual looking to promote either himself/herself or a radical ideology, at the deep expense of the institution and its promoted principles and qualities, is handed free rein to do so.
Nationally speaking, I’d argue that this has happened to a large extent within both major political parties. They're a shadow of their former selves, increasingly weak and driving a record number of voters (who no longer feel represented) to drop their party affiliation. Rather than promoting realistic ideas and solutions to address serious problems, candidates have increasingly adopted meme, personality, and populist driven grievance platforms.
On the Democratic side, for example, we’ve seen how Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist,” can switch his affiliation from “Independent” to “Democrat” whenever he feels like running for president, deliver some crazy-eyed speeches about taking trillions from the rich and giving it to the poor, and come awfully close to actually winning the party’s nomination.
The most glaring example of this, however, came in 2016… when the GOP saw a lifelong Democrat and reality-TV star, who had barely any grasp of conservative principles, American policy, or even American history, win the Republican presidential nomination with the support of just a third of the party’s primary voters. (It was actually quite a bit less than a third throughout most of the primary, up until his nomination was seen as a foregone conclusion).
Of course, Trump’s winning of a plurality of Republican primary voters came about in no small part because of the size of the field that year — almost 20 GOP candidates in whole. While there were some clear differences among them in regard to experience and certain policy ideas, most of those candidates were pretty similar when it came to political and governing philosophy. This shouldn’t have been a surprise, as they were all members of a political party that had a cogent national platform built around conservative tenets.
But only one candidate among them had enormous, celebrity-level name recognition and a wildly charismatic, no-holds-barred persona that paid no reverence to personal decency or even hard facts. And Trump's antics commanded well over 90% of the national media’s GOP primary coverage that year (an estimated $2 billion in free air-time).
Even with that advantage, a strong majority of Republican voters wanted someone else — a more traditional Republican candidate. The problem: there were so many of those candidates that they divided the constituency into lots of pieces that were each narrower than the one Trump had garnished.
So... Trump became the leader of the GOP. Most general-election voters decided their choice of presidents was binary, and Trump narrowly defeated a widely disliked opponent in Hillary Clinton. He was sworn in as president, achieved some things for conservatives (while costing them dearly in other areas), and grew his popularity among the shrinking Republican base.
But four years later, the GOP has found itself in a very rough spot.
As political analyst Chris Stirewalt points out at the beginning of great political podcast, The Hangover, “The GOP went from total control of the White House and Congress to being swept out of power in just four years—the shortest time span in almost 70 years.”
Beyond the electoral losses, Trump was a twice-impeached president who tried to overturn the lawful 2020 election outcome. He also provoked a deadly domestic terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol through a months-long campaign of lies and conspiracy theories. In fact, he’s still actively promoting that fantasy, including a vowed return to power this August. And sadly, the GOP is still so terrified by (and beholden to) the man and his grip on the party’s base that only a handful of Republican officials have dared stand up to him, tell the truth about him, and denounce his further involvement with their political institution. (And they've paid a steep political price for doing so).
Institutional weakness doesn’t get much more obvious than a single person’s capacity to take that institution hostage, and use it to command personal servility and weed out the dissenters.
Ranked choice voting, if parties employed it at the state level, may be a solution to (or at least a starting point in recovering from) such weakness. Here’s how:
The nominee would more accurately reflect the priorities and interests of party voters
The point of a primary is to give party voters a taste of each of the candidates, so that they can determine who they think would be most qualified and suitable for the job. But in the case of a very large field, where a number of candidates hold similar experience and positions, I believe most voters would find satisfaction (and relief) in any individual among a subset of candidates representing them in the general election. I certainly would have in 2016, and pretty much every Republican voter I talked to back then agreed. I’m betting most Democratic voters felt the same way in 2020.
But when the primary system requires voters to settle on a single candidate, the will of the party majority isn’t necessarily represented. In a crowded field, that majority can easily be divided among a large number of candidates, allowing for a fringe candidate with a passionate, united minority — a candidate who most of the party may want nothing to do with — to win.
Some would argue that the real problem in such a situation is the size of the field. That was certainly my assessment in 2016, and I’m sure the same frustration was felt among many Democrats last year. At the same time, it seems rather unfair and even undemocratic to tell people wanting to run for their party’s nomination (who otherwise meet the criteria for doing so) that they can’t… just because a bunch of other people are doing it (or plan to).
Ranked choice voting would address the problem (though the debates would still be a mess), better considering the will of the party’s voting majority.
Early voting wouldn’t be prone to wasted votes
I’ve long enjoyed the convenience of early voting (and mail-in voting for that matter), but I’m the first to admit that it’s a problematic system when it comes to primaries.
The reason is that by the time a person’s vote has been counted (on election day), there’s a decent chance that the candidate that person voted for has already dropped out of the race; abrupt ends to campaigns are just the nature of primaries. In such cases, that voter has effectively wasted their vote.
In a ranked choice system, however, that early voter would still have a say in the election outcome. The candidate of their second choice would receive their vote. If that candidate has withdrawn as well, their third choice would get their vote (and so forth).
Again, this would better represent the interests of the party’s voters.
Name ID wouldn’t be such a big deal
The power of name recognition in today’s politics can’t be emphasized enough. While it may not matter all that much to the more politically savvy people reading this column, it matters quite a bit to casual followers of politics who tend to associate fame and familiarity with strength and relevance.
It’s no coincidence that the last two Democratic presidential nominees (Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden) were also the most well-known candidates in their respective primaries. In neither case was it due to any glaring political achievements (though both had been in politics for a while), but rather public stature. Clinton was our country’s First Lady for 8 years, and Biden was our Vice President for the same amount of time under a popular administration.
Donald Trump, of course, was a flashy celebrity who’d been in front of cameras for many years before The Apprentice, but it was that show that really carved out a place for him in American pop-culture. He was far and away the most nationally recognized candidate going into the 2016 election cycle, and as mentioned above, he dominated the media’s Republican primary coverage.
The inherent power that comes with fame is why people have long talked about Oprah Winfrey as a serious presidential contender, and more recently The Rock. It’s how Clint Eastwood and Sonny Bono became mayors, how Al Franken became a U.S. Senator, and how Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse “The Body” Ventura became governors of states.
But what does fame have to do with how effective of a leader someone would be once in public office? I’d argue that the answer is "nothing." And in 2016’s primary, are large majority of Republican voters agreed, filling in non-celebrity candidates on their ballot. A united minority of voters, however, often picks the most famous candidate. And that year, that tendency contributed to Trump winning a plurality of votes in state after state.
If ranked choice voting had been used back then, among that very large field of Republican candidates, what would have been the outcome? Sarah Isgur of The Dispatch recently wrote about this topic:
“Assume that the majority of Cruz voters ranked Rubio second and vice versa—and the Kasich/Bush voters always ranked Trump last and the Carson/Christie voters always ranked Trump second—and Trump probably doesn’t win any of the first three primaries.”
There’d be no front-runner bias
Another point Isgur makes in her piece is that election polling would become largely irrelevant under a ranked choice system. Polling is fairly effective (most of the time) in gauging how well candidates are doing, in part because they’re premised off of a one-to-one, voter-to-candidate ratio. And while election polls perhaps shouldn’t influence who people vote for, they absolutely do.
Truth be told, more than a few people instinctively want to be on a winning team. It’s the case not just with sports, but also politics. And if there’s a candidate who looks like he or she is way out front, and on the verge of winning, there’s a tendency to throw in with that candidate, even among individuals who don’t necessarily think that candidate is the best choice.
The same is true when it comes to the chronological order of state primaries during a presidential election year. Early wins are very important. This is why presidential candidates put so much time, effort, and money into trying to capture those first few primary states. Political momentum is a big deal, and while it seems silly to place such disproportional emphasis on states that don’t necessarily reflect the views and sentiments of the rest of the country, candidates have traditionally been very wise to do so.
That pattern would mostly go away with ranked choice voting. It would be harder to determine a front-runner, candidates would have to work harder in each state to earn voter support, and voters would be more apt to base their vote on substance rather than a trend-line.
As strong as I believe all of these arguments for ranked choice primaries are, there is one significant drawback that I touched on at the beginning of this uncharacteristically long piece: the system is hard to explain to people.
Though it’s demonstrably fair, a lot of voters might not understand the methodology or math behind it. They may suspect it somehow stacks the deck against the type of candidate (or a specific candidate) that they would want. I would argue, especially in the case of a large field, that it would un-stack the deck that currently favors "spoiler" candidates, and put the primary more in line with the party’s voting base. In turn, that sense of representation may attract disenfranchised voters back to the parties, with renewed hope and a reason to believe that their voice will more likely be heard.
And if the party’s voters are firmly in favor of an outlandish or radical candidate like Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, that’s exactly who would win under ranked choice voting.
Political parties are supposed to be vehicles by which citizens freely come together to define their societal ambitions, and advance their beliefs and interests; that’s what builds party strength. They’re not supposed to become the property of an individual who may not care about any of those things, and instead takes the vehicle's keys and shouts, "My way or the highway!" That’s when a party is at its weakest.
The weaknesses and problems that exist inside today's parties obviously extend beyond how their primary systems are set up. But I do think ranked choice voting is an idea that's time has come, and I think it would be big step in the right direction.
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