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Ranked Choice Voting and the 2020 Democratic Primary

By: Martin Ascher

October 30, 2019

Unless many candidates drop out by the time voting begins in the Iowa Caucuses, the 2020 Democratic presidential primary is likely to be a mess. Even though several candidates have already dropped out, the field is still too large to fit into a single televised debate. Unlike the Republican Party, the Democratic Party awards all of its pledged delegates proportionally, and a presidential candidate cannot secure the Democratic Party nomination until they have won a majority of these delegates. In a two-candidate race, winning a majority of the delegates is not an issue, but the 2020 race is anything but a two-candidate race, at least right now. This year’s primary has already highlighted stark ideological divisions within the party, and with primaries lasting until June, the primary schedule is likely to aggravate those divisions. In order to ensure that the greatest number of Democrats find the party’s 2020 nominee acceptable, ranked choice voting should be utilized in as many state primaries as possible.

Ranked choice voting is just one of several alternative voting systems which can be instituted to gain a better sense of voter preferences than the “first-past-the-post” system we have right now. In our current system, the winner of most elections is the popular vote plurality winner. This means that in a 5-candidate close race, the election winner might only get 24% of the vote, meaning that 76% of the voters actually preferred someone else. This outcome threatens democratic legitimacy and erodes trust in the political system. To combat this problem, political scientists have devised a range of alternative voting methods. One of these is “Condorcet Voting”, in which “each voter ranks every candidate in order of individual preference” in a series of one-on-one matchups to determine the favorite candidate overall.1Michael Lewyn, Two Cheers For Instant Runoff Voting, 6 Phoenix L. Rev. 117, 122 (2012). Another is “Approval Voting”, in which “each voter selects one or more candidates of whom the voter approves” and the candidate that receives approval from the largest number of voters wins.2Jeffrey C. O’Neill, Everything That Can Be Counted Does Not Necessarily Count: The Right To Vote And The Choice Of A Voting System, 2006 Mich. St. L. Rev. 327, 334-335 (2006) (For a list of other systems please see the rest of this article). Both of these systems take voter preference into account better than a “first-past-the-post” system.

While the other systems have merit, I believe the best system to implement for the primaries would be ranked choice voting. In ranked choice voting, also known as “Instant Runoff Voting,” voters rank as many candidates for a given office (here the Democratic Party’s nominee for president) as they wish in order from first to last. If no candidate receives a majority of the first choice votes, the candidate with the lowest number of first choice votes is eliminated, and that eliminated candidate’s second choice votes are redistributed to the remaining candidates. This process continues, and candidates are eliminated until one candidate is able to secure a majority of votes.3For a fuller explanation of instant runoff voting, see James P. Langan, Note, Instant Runoff Voting: A Cure That Is Likely Worse Than The Disease, 46 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 1569, 1571 (2005).

Ranked choice voting would serve the Democratic Party well in 2020. Since the United States has only two major parties, “alliances generally span a broad spectrum of interests and ideology”.4Bruce E. Cain & Cody Gray, Parties By Design: Pluralist Party Reform In A Polarized Era, 93 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 622, 624 (2018). The Democratic Party is incredibly diverse racially, economically, and ideologically. In a party with national figures ranging from moderates like Senator Joe Manchin to Democratic Socialists like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, different Democratic primary voters likely prefer very different candidates for the presidency. Additionally, in a crowded field with candidates polling closely together one candidate with a strong base of support can win the most delegates in a contest, even if they are not in the top several choices for most members of the party. If one candidate can only secure 33% of the primary vote and win the nomination, it is possible that many members of the party would actually be dissatisfied with their own nominee. While there will always be dissent, I believe that ranked choice voting provides the greatest opportunity for a consensus pick to emerge. While someone’s first choice might lose the nomination, that voter still gets to indicate who their second, third, or fourth (and so on) choice would be and know that their preference is being taken into account by the process. Ranked choice voting could help avoid the “wasted vote problem” in which voters do not vote for their favorite candidate out of a fear that this candidate will not win anyway, believing their vote would be more strategically placed with a similar candidate in a better position to win, especially in a close race. When voters know that their backup choices will be counted anyway, they will be free to vote for who they truly prefer. 

It is worth repeating that the Democratic Party allocates its delegates proportionately in its presidential primaries, so one might argue that ranked choice voting would be unnecessary under this justification. However, the primary rules in place for 2020 specify that candidates must get at least 15% of the vote in each state or congressional district in order to be awarded delegates in that state’s contest. This means that the wasted vote problem still exists and may in fact be heightened by this 15% threshold in a crowded primary. For example, if a voter preferred a candidate only polling at 4% but was aware of these rules, they might give their vote to a candidate polling at 20% whom they prefer over another candidate polling at 25%. This would be true even if that candidate was not their top choice. Ranked choice voting would solve this voter’s dilemma, allowing the Democratic Party to keep its proportional system while still moving to a ranked choice system.

An additional benefit of moving to ranked choice voting could be a reduction in negative campaigning. If candidates know that they must assemble a coalition of other candidates’ voters to earn delegates, they will be less likely to attack another candidate barring severe policy differences.5Todd Donovan, Caroline Tolbert & Kellen Gracey, Campaign civility under preferential and plurality voting, 42 Electoral Stud. 157, 158 (2016). This could help keep the focus on the issues and avoid the primary turning into a series of petty squabbles among different factions of the Democratic Party. For Democrats who want to defeat the Republican President in 2020, a united party will be crucial to that effort.

Fortunately, some places have already instituted ranked choice voting for the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. Six states6Iowa, Nevada, Hawaii, Alaska, Kansas, and Wyoming  including Iowa and Nevada, two of the four “early states”, will be using ranked choice voting in their 2020 Democratic presidential primary or caucus. Maine even passed a law approving the use of ranked choice voting in its 2024 primary. While it should be noted that these are all smaller states in population (with fewer specific congressional districts that candidates can use to reach the 15% threshold), it will be interesting to see how the results of these primaries compare to those of states of similar size and demographics. While it is already too late to change some state election laws for the 2020 presidential primary, Democrats in as many states as possible should seriously consider following the lead of these states and institute ranked choice voting. 

Martin Ascher, J.D. Class of 2020, N.Y.U. School of Law.

Suggested Citation: Martin Ascher, Ranked Choice Voting and the 2020 Democratic Primary, N.Y.U. J. Legis & Pub. Pol’y Quorum (2019).