Last month the major parties held their conventions to pick presidential nominees Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. But before we turn our attention solely to the general election, I’d like to highlight a sensible proposal that state parties have the power to enact before the 2020 elections that promises to benefit both parties.
We have become a multiple option society in nearly every way. Politics is no different, as the 11 serious candidates seeking the Republican nomination at the time of the Iowa caucuses can attest. A greater mix of candidates and choices can enrich our policy debates and allow parties to show they have a big tent that, when united, can hold a majority of Americans.
There’s just one problem: we only allow voters to indicate support for one candidate no matter how many choices they have. It’s time to seriously consider what Robert’s Rules of Order calls preferential voting and what many cities using it call “ranked choice voting.”
Ranked choice voting is a proven way to vote. Its recommendation by Robert's Rules has led to extensive use by private organization elections, from the Utah Republican Party to the Oscars for Best Picture. London elects its mayor with ranked choice voting, and Australia has used it for its national elections for nearly a century.
Studies show that voters handle the ballot well, including nearly nine in ten ranking a second candidate in American cities holding contested mayoral elections. Maine will be voting on whether to adopt the system for its elections for governor, Senate, House and state legislature this November.
One way ranked choice voting upholds voting rights helps show how it works. Arkansas Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina use ranked choice voting for overseas and military voters when they have congressional runoff elections. Overseas voters return a traditional “vote-for-one” ballot that is counted in the first round. They also return a ranked choice ballot that, in the event of a runoff, counts for whichever runoff candidate is ranked higher on the ballot.
Election officials report it works well. In South Carolina, for example, a higher percentage of overseas voters than of in-person voters cast a vote that counts in both rounds of their runoffs.
To extend that power to all voters, ballots would allow voters to rank the candidates in order of preference, from first to last – stopping when they are indifferent to the remaining candidates. Counting is as easy as one-two-three. First, you tally first choices and elect anyone who has a majority. Second, if there is no majority winner in the first round, you eliminate the last-place candidate, and add ballots cast for the losing candidate to their voters’ next choice. Third, you continue the process until the winner earns more than half the vote when matched against the remaining candidates.
This year’s Republican presidential contest demonstrates the case for change. Imagine if Republican voter had felt the freedom to vote for their favorite candidate without worrying that doing so might help elect their least favorite.
Imagine if the more than half million Republicans who voted early, but had their vote count for a candidate who had withdrawn by the date of their primary, had been able to have their vote still count for their next choice. Imagine if the candidates had sought from day one to be the consensus nominee. Imagine if we had learned which candidate had majority support in every state when paired head-to-head against their strongest opponent.
Such rules might not have changed the final outcome, but it would have improved the conduct of the campaign and confirmed that we were nominating the consensus choice.
Ranked choice voting works well no matter how a state allocates delegates. States could use good use of ranked choice voting no matter whether thy are holding conventions, caucuses and traditional primaries. When allocating delegates proportionally, states could eliminate all trailing candidates until all those remaining were above the threshold to earn delegates. In all states, whether using winner-take-all or proportional, states would report who had earned true bragging rights by winning that state’s final round majority.
Parties are strongest when their nominees bring their party together. Ranked choice voting encourages reaching such a consensus. Let’s start taking steps to prepare our states to have ranked choice voting in place before the 2020 election.
A former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, Saul Anuzis as a candidate for RNC chair in 2009 and 2011.