Ranked-Choice Voting* to the Rescue in Presidential Primary

Our Current Voting Methods Are
Inadequate and Corrupt

— By Steve Showen
May 23, 2019

The crowded field of the 2020 Democratic Presidential Primary season further illustrates the need for an electoral process that determines which candidate actually has the majority support of the electorate when more than two people run for the same seat.  Majority support is the baseline criterion for the legitimacy of any election in a society that purports to be democratic.

As it stands, our presidential races are winner-take-all plurality elections—in both the primary and general elections.  The candidate with the most votes wins.  A majority is not required.  (However, even the criterion of “most votes” is sometimes not upheld, as when the electoral college overrules the popular plurality, or when in 2000 the U.S.  Supreme Court interrupted the recount, thus determining the winner.)

Putting aside for the moment the arcane Democratic party rules for participating in their debates, conducting their primary, and selecting their delegates — In an honest primary winner-take-all election with the currently 20 leading Democratic candidates (there are actually over 200!), a win could conceivably be had, if all candidates were nearly tied, for as little as five% plus one vote, or a hair over five% of voter turnout! That’s hardly a mandate from the electorate.  Even a leading candidate will not likely attain anything near a majority in such a large field.  Plurality elections foster rule by minority.

“Worse Evil” Spoiled System.

Likewise, the general election is equally undemocratic, where multiple parties” candidates compete for the presidency in a single winner-take-all (fear based) election.  Minor party candidates are marginalized because people vote for the “lesser evil” mainstream candidate rather than for their favorite who happens to be of a minor party, for fear of “splitting the vote” and thereby electing the “worse evil.” A minor party candidate is accused of “spoiling” the election by “splitting” votes away from a major party candidate, thus helping to elect their opponent, or the “worse evil,” whether or not that is actually what has happened.  It presumes the major party owns those votes, and the minor party candidate has no right to compete, nor has his or her independent base.

However, the real “spoiler” is an electoral system which cannot accommodate multiple candidates fairly.  It functions to divide an electorate which would otherwise be a stronger unified force having a duly elected standard bearer, and instead selects a candidate most people don’t want.  None of which is the fault of any minor party or its worthy candidate.

Winner-take-all plurality elections thwart the will of the people.  Democracy is undermined.  The duopoly of the Republican and Democratic parties is maintained.

There Are Better Voting Methods.

Why should We the People have tolerated this travesty, when there have long been available sound, proven, majority-revealing voting systems?

For example, where a majority win is valued from among three or more candidates, a primary election is often held.  Should one candidate receive more then 50%, he or she is declared the winner, election over.  Should none breach 50%, the top two compete in a following runoff election for the winner.  This is an improvement over plurality elections.  Drawbacks include the cost of producing two elections, and lower voter turnout for the runoff.  It’s still possible the winner may not have majority support of the whole electorate.

Ranked Choice Voting at the Top of the List.

Fortunately, we have something better and easier!  Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), guarantees a majority winner every time from any size field of candidates in just one visit to the polls!

A super bonus feature is that RCV enables people to vote for their dream long-shot candidate from a minor party without fear of “spoiling” the election.  Minor party candidates can compete on a level playing field without fear of recrimination, and thus have a chance of winning.  A true measure of their popularity can be freely seen.  With RCV, the will of the majority of the electorate is clearly demonstrated.  Campaigns are less acrimonious because candidates must appeal to voters” second choices.  Voter turnout is higher.  With RCV you vote your dreams, not your fears!

RCV to the Rescue in the Democratic Primary.

The Democratic Party is tasked with winnowing down its 20-plus primary field to manageable size by convention time.  Their first major constraint has been to cap the debate field at 20, qualifying to be done either by getting a minimum 1% rating in three separate polls, or by receiving donations from 65,000 unique donors, with at least 200 unique donors per state in at least 20 states, ties to be resolved by specified rules.

Next, to make it to the convention, the candidates must exceed the primary election threshold.  Adam Eichen reports in The Hill: “In order to qualify for proportional allocation of delegates, a Democratic candidate must surpass 15% of the vote.” ….”The candidate(s) reaching the threshold receive bonus delegates to offset votes excluded from delegate allocation.”

That sounds sort of democratic, except that, as Eichen notes in his Hill article “We need ranked-choice voting in presidential primaries”:  An (early March) “YouGov poll released by the University of Massachusetts Amherst of New Hampshire voters” shows that after Biden (28%) and Bernie (20%) “the rest of the field garners anywhere from 1% to 14%.”  And “… 43% of voters favor a candidate polling below 15% of the vote.  (9% of voters remain completely undecided).”

As Charlotte Burns points out in her article in MASSlive, “Ranked Choice Voting should become law (Letters)”: “With our system, the votes could be so split that Biden could win with 20% and a voting public of 80% who feels totally cheated.  That’s how we end up with extreme candidates such as Paul LePage in Maine, an extreme right wing Republican.  That’s why Maine voted overwhelmingly for Rank Choice Voting.”

Some Democrats have realized that Ranked Choice Voting, long championed by the Green Party and promoted extensively by Jill Stein in 2012 and 2016,  could help resolve their primary more democratically.  An idea whose time has come, RCV is increasingly being adopted by cities around the country.  Maine held the first-ever RCV elections for Congress in our nation’s history.  And now some Democrats are introducing RCV in several state legislatures for use in the 2020 presidential primary with noticeable public support, in one case to apply in the general election as well.

Eichen explains, as it is currently being structured by Democrats in these states, “RCV in the presidential primary would allow voters to rank candidates in preferential order.  If one or more candidates fail to reach the delegate threshold (15%), their votes would be reassigned—starting with the lowest vote-getting candidate—according to voters” subsequent preferences.  This process would continue until each remaining candidate has surpassed the delegate threshold.  With that, there would be virtually no wasted votes.”

Mathematically, a race with a tight field of 20 candidates with a threshold of 15% could potentially produce as many as six primary winners.  However, with even as little as three surviving candidates, adopting RCV for use at the convention itself rather than winner-take-all could lend somewhat more credibility, despite the dubious delegate structure.

Ideally, RCV, would be coordinated across all states from the beginning and continued until a single majority winner appeared, a presidential nominee reflecting the will of a majority of party members, versus having a suspect party apparatus intervene.  Similarly, RCV could apply to the multi party general election as well.

RCV as Part of a Growing Electoral Reform Movement (…or Bait & Switch?).

As some Democrats promote RCV for the presidential primary at the state level, congressional Democrats are posturing as champions of electoral reform.  Several have called for the elimination of the Electoral College.  Democrats have introduced HR 1, the sweeping anti-corruption and clean elections package.  However, HR1 poses little risk for Democrats to enact, not having majorities in both Houses.  They’re hoping to embarrass the Republicans, who they know won’t back it……except for the McCarthyite poison pills the Democrats have inserted that can be passed separately with enthusiastic Republican support.  These vile portions are surgically aimed at debilitating minor parties, and deputizing police, prisons, the Pentagon and intelligence to make annual reports on threats to our election security by Americans who might be under the influence of foreign powers (meaning Russia! … and anyone who dissents! … spreading fear and gunning for the Greens in 2020,” to quote Bruce Dixon of the Black Agenda Report).

RCV is not in HR1.  Still, the Democratic Party can do the right thing by making good use of RCV now.  Contends Eichen: “Ultimately, there is still time to adopt ranked choice voting for the 2020 presidential primaries.  But the clock is ticking.  The Democratic Party should therefore signal to state lawmakers and party leaders that RCV would be welcome.  Likewise, presidential candidates could bring much-needed attention to the idea by publicly supporting it.”

Whether a 20-some candidate field in the Democratic party presidential primary can be resolved into a single nominee deemed to have majority support of the Democratic electorate would be the rarest of events, especially given plurality voting and the convention delegate structure.  Last season’s primary fiasco with Bernie informs us the nominee may not even have a plurality.  Should Democrats gain control of both houses of Congress, with or without winning the presidency, their integrity and resolve in passing only the best parts of HR1, and decisively removing the poison, will be called to account.

As it continues to prove its mettle in the meantime, there will be no excuse not to implement RCV in realizing majority winners in Local and State contests, Congressional races, Presidential primaries, and in the General election as well. 


  • Ranked Choice Voting is sometimes called Instant Runoff Voting because, similar to conventional primary and runoff elections, succeeding tabulation rounds (or runoffs) are conducted until a majority winner emerges, but is accomplished by one visit to the polls with one ballot.  The voter simply ranks his or her preferences in descending order.  First choices are counted.  Should a majority appear, election over.  If not, candidates are eliminated, starting with the lowest vote getting.  The second choices of those ballots are now added to the totals.  The process continues until a majority winner becomes apparent.

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