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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Would Ranked Choice Voting in Democratic Presidential Primaries Enhance Solidarity?

At In These Times, Adam Ginsbug writes that “six Democratic primaries and caucuses will use RCV (ranked choice voting) next year…RCV would ensure that the crowded primary field ultimately produces a nominee with true majority support.”

Reporting at the end of July, Ginsburg was interested in assessing the support for ranked choice voting among the Democratic presidential candidates. He found that “there are four Democratic candidates who actively advocate for RCV, five candidates who are supportive and two candidates who are receptive to the method. Only two candidates have expressed indifference. The other 12 major Democratic candidates have not commented publicly on RCV.” None of the front-runners at the time advocated RCV, while Sens. Sanders, Buttigieg and Booker expressed “positive sentiment” towards the idea, while Warren and O’Rourke were “open” to it.

Ginzburg notes further that “After the contentious 2016 primary fight, the Democratic National Committee called on its state affiliates to make the presidential candidate selection process more accessible to voters. Six states—Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas, Nevada, Iowa, and Wyoming— will turn to RCV to heed that call.”

Simon Waxman notes at Democracy that RCV “has been used in municipal elections in California, Minnesota, Washington state, and elsewhere. And for nearly a hundred years, Australians have elected their lower house of parliament using the method.”

Ginsburg gets into the particular tweaks each of the six states uses for their RCV and adds,

Although the preliminary proposals indicate some states plan to implement RCV in slightly different manners, all plans adhere to the rules set by the Democratic Party: all candidates above the 15% threshold will accrue delegates. Accordingly, as FairVote Senior Fellow David Daley put it, using RCV means that “last-place candidates will be eliminated and backers of those candidates will have their vote count toward their next choice until all remaining candidates are above the 15% vote threshold to win delegates.”

While these plans are all preliminary until they are formally accepted by the DNC, it is heartening to see ranked choice voting adopted as a viable alternative to the current winner-take-all system—especially in a field this crowded.

My take is that ranked choice voting in presidential primaries is a good idea because it enhances voter participation, gives more consideration to each voter’s personal preferences and promotes solidarity among Democratic voters, who will have more of a sense that their range of views have been taken into consideration by the party.

As one of those voters who is struggling to choose between two of the current presidential candidates, it would give me a way to support them both over the others. If none of my choices win, at least I will have more of a sense that the party cared about my views and my candidates got more consideration than is now the case in most states.

One possible downside is that there might be more dithering at the polls, resulting in longer lines. That could be ameliorated to some extent with a publicity campaign urging voters to make their choices before they get to the polls and stick to it. Even better, if RCV is combined with expanded early voting, mail-in ballots, weekend voting and other reforms to make the voting experience less cumbersome.

Waxman argues that RCV often enhances voter disappointment, when their favored candidiates don’t make the cut. He notes further, that “In 2010 the Australian Labor Party won the House of Representatives with just 38 percent of first-place votes on the initial ballot, while the second-place Liberal-National coalition captured 43 percent. That hardly sounds like a firm mandate…So much for guaranteed majority rule.”

Yet, he also reports that “In the 2013 Australian federal election, 90 percent of constituencies elected the candidate with the most first-preference votes, which suggests that choice ranking had little effect on the outcome.” Perhaps the problem of undermining majority rule could be addressed by giving additional weight to first choices.

I like the idea of more voters discussing their ranked choices in coffee shops, carpools, workplace break rooms and water coolers before and after casting their ballots. Instead of Democratic voters segmenting into one camp and rejecting all others, giving due weight to the idea that we share respect for each others spectrum of choices creates more of a spirit of solidarity.

Right now, for example, there is likely some bitterness among suporters of candidates who got cut from the network debates. With RCV playing a role in the selection process, they would have more of a feeling that their preferences have gotten fair consideration.

It would be really good for the Democratic Party to take a stronger lead in adopting ranked choice voting in the primaries, thus providing a message that this is the party that really cares about democracy. At the very least, the states should widen the experiment.

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