Rank Choice Voting Could Invigorate Democratic Primary

The overwhelming feeling of the upcoming Democratic Primary race is dread. Despite Super Tuesday (when nine states in the US will hold their primaries, newly including California) being 199 days away, we all seem to be dragging our feet toward the ballot boxes. When I talk to people about the primary, the consensus is that Democrats just want someone who can beat Donald Trump in 2020, and every single person recognizes the importance of their vote. Vote for a candidate who aligns most closely with your views, Democrats might lose 2020 because the chosen candidate is too far left for the general election. Vote for the most “electable” candidate, turnout might be low because no one is as energized by a more moderate candidate. 

“Electability” is on many minds as they start to pay more attention to the winnowing field of Democrats. In a February poll from Monmouth University, 56 percent of Democrats prefer someone who can beat Donald Trump in 2016 over someone more aligned with their issues. Thirty three percent of Democrats are more “values-oriented,” saying they prefer someone who aligns with their views even if they have a hard time beating Trump. Now, how these values voters would shake out in the actual election might change as the field of candidates gets smaller and it becomes clearer who the nominee will be. 

One of the major issues with this political strategizing is that each person is independently deciding what “electable” means. To most, it means a straight white man who leans more moderate than leftist. So that leaves former Vice President Joe Biden, former representative from Texas Beto O’Rourke, and others who have yet to distinguish themselves (i.e. don’t have a fighting chance). But are these men really the most electable candidates in the field? Especially considering 2018 brought in a wave of left-leaning and full left senators, representatives, governors, and state representatives of both genders, multiple races, and different religions into government. You might think that the enthusiasm that brought in the likes of AOC, Ilhan Omar, and nearly got Stacey Abrams elected in Georgia would dissipate if a Biden or an O’Rourke was chosen as the candidate of choice. 

And so we go back and forth, back and forth until we’re exhausted and just want this whole mess to be over. What if there was a way to end the conversation on electability all together and allow each person to vote for their candidate of choice without worrying that their votes will be hurting the party’s chances of winning overall? There is: rank-choice voting. 

If you would rather watch an explanation of rank-choice voting on Youtube than read about it on this blog, here’s an excellent video that features animals as politicians

United States elections currently work like this. You go to the polls and you think about how other people will be voting. You then make a choice between a candidate you really like (or align with) and whomever you think will actually win. We saw this happen in 2016. If you vote for a candidate who will likely not win the general election (third party candidate), your vote gets “taken away” from your second choice candidate. We saw this happen in 2016, when votes for Jill Stein and Gary Johnson were seen as being “taken from” Hillary Clinton. If all those third party voters would have gotten in line with Democrats, so goes the thinking, we might have a different president right now. 

But in rank-choice voting, you can always lead with your values and interests. Let’s pretend there are four candidates and you need 270 votes to win: Susie, Jimmy, Rebecca, and Randy. Susie and Jimmy are from the two traditional leading parties, and Randy and Rebecca represent smaller parties. A person goes to their ballot and ranks their choices. They really like Rebecca, tolerate Susie, feel apathetic about Randy, and hate Jimmy. If Rebecca can’t win, they want their vote to go to Susie. And that’s what happens:

Susie: 180 votes

Jimmy: 200 votes

Rebecca: 70 votes

Randy: 50 votes

In rank-choice voting, if no one reaches the necessary majority to advance or win, you start eliminating candidates (but not votes!). In last place, Randy is eliminated, and his voters were split between Susie and Jimmy evenly. 

Susie: 205 votes

Jimmy: 225 votes

Rebecca: 70 votes

Randy: Eliminated

Still no one has the right number of votes, so it happens again. All of Rebecca’s voters put Susie as their second choice candidate, so all those votes go to her. 

Susie: 275 votes and winner

Jimmy: 225 votes

Rebecca: Eliminated

Randy: Eliminated

Susie now has the necessary number of votes and wins. But do you see that if they had stayed with the original “majority” winner, Jimmy would have won? But that would not have reflected the actual views of the people electing him. Rank-choice voting allows the most people to be represented  by someone they align with (or at least tolerate). 

The downsides of rank-choice voting include the time it takes to recount the votes multiple times. Election night might turn into “election couple days.” It also might keep lots of candidates in an election much longer, using more money and resources to prop up their campaigns because they know they have a better chance than before (however, this just sounds like a truer democracy). Ideally this system could also replace the electoral college in the United States, but rank-choice voting could still work within that system (the state’s winner taking the electoral delegates like they do now). 

I like rank-choice voting because it bolsters third party and independent party voters to really campaign hard. They don’t have to worry about the DNC or the RNC putting pressure on them to stop because it doesn’t hurt the mainstream parties’ chances of winning in the overall election. Over time, with good media and strong candidates, we might actually see multiple parties earn spots in Congress, and that could make the gridlocked system break down. After all, when no party is in a majority, you have to work with other parties to get anything done. I also like that I don’t have to think about how anyone else is voting. I can put down all of my favorite candidates and as long as I rank a Democrat above a Republican, I know my vote will go to the Democrats. 

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