Opinion by Kevin Johnson & Yuval Levin
Next week citizens in Massachusetts and Alaska will decide whether to adopt ranked choice voting (RCV), the voting innovation now in use in Maine and several U.S. cities and counties. Conventional wisdom might suggests that it’s mostly progressives that favor this change, but in fact support for RCV is growing elsewhere on the political spectrum. The Republican Party used RCV to pick leaders in hotly contested races for Congress in Utah and Virginia and for attorney general in Indiana. Washington Post conservative columnist Henry Olsen called for RCV for the next GOP presidential nomination. Former Chair of the GOP in Massachusetts Jennifer Nassour recently endorsed the yes vote for RCV in the Bay State, in an oped presenting “the conservative case for ranked choice voting.”
With RCV, voters can mark first, second, and third choices (or more) for each office. Results are counted in rounds in which the least-supported candidate is eliminated, with the eliminated candidate’s votes transferred to each voter’s next preferred candidate. In nearly all cases, the system results in a winner who has been voted for by the majority.
Opponents like current Massachusetts GOP chair Jim Lyons argue this approach violates one-person-one vote, but that argument has failed repeatedly in federal courts, and if it were true, it would imply overseas military have been committing fraud for years. Several southern states use runoff elections when no candidate achieves a majority, and without enough time to mail runoff ballots, election officials from these states rely on ranked choice ballots for soldiers and other citizens overseas.
Ranked choice voting is fundamentally the same as a runoff election—which, again, is used statewide by a number of red states and was even proposed for presidential elections by none other than Mitch McConnell. In runoff elections, voters are told to come back to the polls weeks later to choose between the two remaining candidates; with RCV, ballots for eliminated candidates are in effect brought back to express their choice on the remaining candidates. The difference between a runoff system and ranked choice is that RCV saves the cost of the second election and the second trip to the polls for voters.
Some GOP opposition arises from Bruce Poliquin’s 2018 loss in Maine’s 2nd congressional district, in an RCV election Poliquin led before ballots for independent candidates were reallocated. But there are as many, or more, examples of races the GOP lost and would have won under RCV, like last year’s Kentucky gubernatorial election. Democrat Andy Beshear won that election by a 5,000 vote margin after 28,000 votes went to Libertarian spoiler John Hicks. A Hicks Facebook post mocked the GOP for not supporting the RCV system that would have certainly given them the win.
Fundamentally, ranked choice voting doesn’t preference either party; it preferences mainstream candidates of both parties over spoilers and fringe candidates. That is needed now because party control of candidate nomination has lost out to the grassroots, resulting in a significant increase in primary candidates. In 2018, 146 U.S. House primaries had five or more candidates, by the far the most in history.
Crowded primaries create the risk of fringe candidates winning with far less than majority support, some of whom go on to Congress from the many districts that are uncompetitive between the two parties. Research by Election Reformers Network found that, on average, members who first entered the House after winning a primary with less than 35 percent are significantly less representative of their districts, and significantly more ideologically extreme, than members who first entered with majority support in the primary.
Social media is already giving extremist ideas more credibility than they deserve, like utopian defund-the-police schemes on the left and QAnon conspiracies on the right. Crowded primaries and our simple plurality voting system create a path for these extreme ideas to enter our legislatures, where they undermine what parties stand for and make it harder to address the nation’s problems.
By reducing the odds of fringe candidates winning primaries, RCV offers state parties across the country a way to make sure the most electable candidate emerges from primary elections, and a way to legislate more effectively.
Kevin Johnson is Executive Director of Election Reformers Network and an Advisor to The Carter Center and Yes-on-2 in Massachusetts. Yuval Levin is Director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.