Ranked choice voting should be the future of elections
2020 might seem like the distant future, but the Democratic presidential primary is already underway. While several potentially major candidates have yet to announce and pundits should probably cool it for at least a little longer, one thing’s clear: the Democratic field is going to be a crowded and ideologically diverse battleground. Candidates span from moderates, like Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker, to progressive stalwarts like Elizabeth Warren and, of course, Bernie Sanders. With such a large and fractured field, there’s a particularly compelling argument to be made for ranked choice voting.
The Democratic primary awards delegates proportionally. But in order to receive a proportional number of delegates, a candidate must receive at least 15 percent of the vote. Under the current system, if you vote for a candidate who receives less than 15 percent of the vote, your vote essentially vanishes. While this system is certainly better than the alternative winner-takes-all system, it presents issues in a large field when votes are fractured among many candidates.
Enter ranked-choice voting. It’s quite simple: Rather than picking one candidate, you rank them. Then, all the first-choice votes are counted up; if your first choice candidate doesn’t reach the threshold, your second choice candidate gets your vote. If both your first and second fail, your third choice receives a vote — and so forth. This is not some pie-in-the-sky idea; it’s been implemented on a smaller scale around the country. Many cities, states and even universities have adopted ranked choice voting, according to FairVote.com.
The ranked-choice system could be beneficial in a national primary setting, especially for the unusually extensive field of 2020 hopefuls. Let’s imagine you’re a progressive Democrat (I know; a progressive at Brandeis, what a far-fetched idea). Maybe your first choice is the academic Elizabeth Warren, who you favor for her policy expertise and wonkish demeanor. But let’s imagine that by the time the primaries come around, Warren still trails Sanders. This could very well happen; right now, Sanders usually polls at anywhere from 11 percent into the high 20s, whereas Warren hovers around 5 percent, per FiveThirtyEight.com. Sanders also matches up relatively well with your hypothetical political views, but your first choice is Warren. You have a decision to make — do you vote for your genuine choice, potentially “wasting” your vote and failing to support a progressive who might actually get the nomination? Or do you vote for your second choice, sapping even more support from Warren?
The scenario could apply to Democrats of all stripes — say, a centrist who broadly supports Kamala Harris but whose ideal candidate is the far lesser known Peter Buttigieg. The problem remains the same: voters potentially compromising their ideological preferences in order to vote in accordance with national trends. It’s a dilemma that ranked-choice voting neatly solves. Put your first choice first, your second choice second, and not a single vote is “wasted.” If Warren or Buttigieg doesn’t get 15 percent of the vote, your vote goes to Sanders or Harris. It’s a system that doesn’t reward name recognition quite so heavily, that encourages voters to support less popular candidates, and that prevents the rapid snowballing of popularity some candidates experience.
Granted, the result of this arrangement could reveal very different fractures in the Democratic party than common knowledge dictates. The conventional party fractures I laid out above — a progressive who’s dithering between Warren and Sanders and a moderate looking to Harris or Buttgeig, may be an overly simplistic binary. FiveThirtyEight recently published a fascinating model that conglomerated polls asking voters for their second choice primary candidate. The two leading candidates, in accordance with other polls, were Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden (the latter has not yet announced his candidacy, but the pollsters don’t seem to mind). But here’s what’s interesting: when examining second choices, “more than a quarter of Biden supporters say Sanders is their second choice, and more than a quarter of Sanders supporters say Biden is their second choice,” as reported by FiveThirtyEight.com. In this sense, ranked choice voting might end up with some surprising beneficiaries. Either way, the resulting nominee would better reflect the preferences of voters; isn’t that what a democracy is supposed to strive towards?
It is, of course, highly unlikely that ranked choice voting will be implemented on a national level any time soon. The Democratic Party still places enormous value on candidates’ performance in Iowa; while they aren’t conservative in the political sense, they’re clearly conservative in terms of their reluctance to violate tradition and introduce systemic changes. But hey, five years ago no one would’ve guessed that Democratic socialists would be such a powerful force within the party. In this rapidly changing environment, it seems reasonable to at least start a conversation about the mechanics of our elections.