While contests in 11 states on March 3 will elect the most delegates in the 2020 presidential primaries, it’s April 4 — and the party-run primaries in Alaska and Hawaii — that might actually transform our politics. Both states plan to use ranked-choice voting to elect their delegates to the Democratic National Convention. With the vote possibly divided among more than 15 candidates, there’s real potential of a plurality nominee who doesn’t unify Democrats.
Just imagine: Joe Biden captures the nomination without breaking 35 percent in the first 20 contests because support for a new direction is split among other candidates. Or Bernie Sanders becomes an unstoppable frontrunner without ever needing to address the anger of Hillary Clinton supporters with long memories.
That’s where RCV comes in. If last-place primary finishers in Hawaii or Alaska fall below the Democrats’ 15% threshold of support necessary to earn delegates, they would be eliminated. Their voters would have their votes count for their next choice. This process would continue until all candidates have at least 15%, when delegates would then be allocated on a proportional basis as required by Democratic Party rules. Running RCV down to the final two would show who really has earned bragging rights as the state’s majority winner.
RCV holds the potential to re-create our politics. Suppose you like Cory Booker, are intrigued by Pete Buttigeig and Kamala Harris, would settle for Joe Biden, and oppose Sanders. Do you cast your ballot for Booker even if the real battle seems between Harris and Sanders? With RCV, you could back Booker first, Mayor Pete second, Harris third and Biden fourth. If your top choices fall short of earning delegates, your vote isn’t wasted.
If you back Elizabeth Warren, but prefer Sanders over Biden, simply rank your ballot accordingly. Voters are free to cast a statement vote, for example, in support of Gov. Jay Inslee’s climate crusade, without worrying that backing a long shot means losing your chance to pick the top of the ticket. Rank all women. Or all moderates. Or all progressives. The choice is yours — as it should be.
The Democrats’ requirement that a candidate earn 15 percent of votes to receive delegates may be particularly problematic in 2020. If actual primaries mirrored recent polls, only Biden and Sanders would win delegates and nearly half of voters’ choices effectively wouldn’t count.
The fractured primary field helps explain other expected uses of RCV. Democrats require early voting in caucus states, and those early voters will likely cast RCV ballots in two of the first three contests: Nevada and Iowa. RCV ensures more people can participate by voting early without losing the power that caucus attendees have to move to their second choice if their first choice can’t win delegates.
Caucuses have downsides tied to lower turnout, but caucus states can look to RCV because they can more nimbly adopt sensible voting rules. Taking the longer route of changing state law, Maine may extend its historic application of RCV in congressional races to both the presidential primary and general election under legislation sponsored by its Senate president. Equal Citizens is leading a campaign to bring RCV to the New Hampshire primary.
Allowing voters to rank their choices minimizes wasted votes, makes voters more powerful and provides a truer read of what voters think. With large fields, RCV rewards winners who seek consensus support.
So aloha, RCV. Or aang, as visitors to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands may hear. Such meaningful and profound change is indeed welcome in any language.