Picking our president every four years is perhaps the most important decision Americans make. Yet the process both major political parties use for nominating our candidates is arcane, outdated and in need of improvement. Trust us, we’ve been part of it.
While many might assume whoever wins a majority of votes in primary elections will win their party’s nomination, the reality is not so simple. Instead, many voters are disenfranchised by the hurdles of in-person caucuses, millions are admonished against "wasting" their votes, and delegates are awarded to candidates in a way that does not accurately reflect voter preferences.
It’s time we bring our presidential primary process into the 21st Century by adopting ranked choice voting. This promising non-partisan electoral reform would give voters more voice, choice and power in the primary process.
Ranked choice voting is simple: voters rank their candidates in order of preference. If no candidate wins an outright majority, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated, and subsequent choices are counted until a winner emerges with at least 50% support.
Democratic parties in five states used ranked choice voting for this year’s presidential primary: Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas, Nevada and Wyoming. Republicans have used the system for nominating conventions for local, state and federal office this year in Utah, Indiana and Virginia.
By all accounts, turnout was up across all contests and voters enjoyed the process, saying it made them feel powerful, and made voting more fun.
Maine will become the first state to use ranked choice voting in a presidential general election this November, as the state’s Supreme Court upheld on Tuesday.
As a new report from the Unite America Institute details, ranked choice voting can solve several problems in our presidential primaries, which will likely see crowded presidential candidate fields on both sides for the foreseeable future.
System better reflects voters' decisions
For one, ranked choice voting ensures the most accurate allocation of delegates based on voters’ true preferences. In most Republican primaries, where the top vote getter is awarded all of the delegates in a particular state, it guarantees the winner has majority support –– not just the largest plurality faction.
In most Democratic primaries, where the delegates are proportionally allocated to candidates above a particular threshold (usually 15%), it ensures the voices of voters for candidates below that threshold can still be heard.
Second, ranked choice voting allows voters to cast second and third place preferences in case their preferred candidate drops out of the race. In 2020, more than 4.5 million ballots in the Democratic primary were for withdrawn candidates. In 2016, half-a-million votes were cast for candidates who were no longer running in the Republican primary.
Finally, the system can serve as an upgrade for states that use caucuses instead of primaries, as those systems tend to disenfranchise voters by requiring them to show up for long periods of time and publicly proclaim their support in front of neighbors and community members.
Beyond presidential primaries, ranked choice voting also can be used in general elections to ensure voters can cast ballots for the candidate they like most without fear of “spoiling” their vote on a less viable candidate –– a perpetual challenge facing any third party or independent presidential candidate. This would make our democracy more dynamic and responsive.
While 2020 has already proven that ranked choice voting is both needed and can work in presidential primaries, important work still lies ahead in November in advancing the reform for other elections down the ballot. This Election Day, voters in two states — Alaska and Massachusetts — will see ballot initiatives to adopt ranked choice voting statewide.
After years of grassroots organizing, voters in Massachusetts — where one of us once served as governor — will have the opportunity to vote on a 2020 ballot measure that would implement ranked choice voting for state and federal elections.
A campaign in Alaska would combine ranked choice voting in general elections with top-four nonpartisan primaries, an electoral innovation called “Final Four Voting.” All candidates, regardless of party affiliation, would run in a single primary open to all voters, and the top four vote getters would advance to the November election.
A way to reduce negative ads
Ranked choice provides many benefits at all levels. Research shows more women and people of color run and win with this reform. Because candidates seek second place votes, negative campaigning is diminished. Barriers for new competition will be reduced for candidates outside of both major parties.
In cities, ranked choice voting eliminates the need for costly, low-turnout runoff elections; New York City — where the other of us casts his vote — approved a ranked choice voting measure in 2019 with 74% support, and the city will save more than $20 million per election.
Ranked choice voting is a promising, non-partisan reform that may soon hit a tipping point. By the next presidential primaries in 2024, it should be the rule rather than exception –– a goal that state legislatures and state parties can begin working toward now.
Andrew Yang, a Democrat, is an entrepreneur, author, founder of Humanity Forward, and a former 2020 presidential candidate. Gov. Bill Weld, a Republican, served as the 68th governor of Massachusetts and is a former 2016 and 2020 presidential candidate.