Tired of vicious primaries? Support ranked choice voting and democratic reform

Tired of vicious primaries? Support ranked choice voting and democratic reform

Holy heated campaign season! People are at each other’s throats. Not over who gets to be president, but over who gets to try to be president. Both parties are in turmoil. What a mess, and what is it all for?

Well, welcome to America. I know we aren’t the best at looking outside our borders, but in many other democratic countries, picking a party’s nominee is not nearly such a big deal. In most democracies, parties pretty much do it without a lot of input from citizens and no one cares. So why is it such a big deal here?

Mostly because we have only two parties. If there were several parties, with several candidates to choose from (as in most other democracies), the process of choosing those candidates would not be nearly as important because voters would have lots of choice at the general election. But since we have only two, determining those choices becomes extremely important. Our two parties are really coalitions of what would be several parties under different circumstances, and the primary battle is these parties within parties battling for dominance.

We could make primaries less of a big deal just by having more, and more viable, third parties. The reason we only have two dominant parties is our electoral system. In any U.S. election, only one candidate can win, and the winner is determined by whoever gets a plurality (the most) votes. While that may sound straightforward and fair, it has some undesirable consequences, such as two dominant parties.

This is because of the spoiler effect – when a third party candidate runs, they peel votes away from one side, potentially handing the election to the other side. After such a result, the third party will be under pressure to join with the closest major party, and voters won’t vote for a third party candidate as long as the memory of the last loss still smarts. Eventually voters forget, and will vote for a third party candidate again, only to get burned again.

The most simple way to foster more third parties is by adopting Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). In RCV a candidate must get a majority (more than half), not just a plurality, of votes to win. If no candidate does, the lowest scoring candidate is dropped, and their voters’ second choices are distributed to the remaining candidates. This goes on until one candidate has a majority.

RCV eliminates the spoiler effect because an election can’t be handed to a candidate with less than half of the votes by a third party splitting the majority vote. With no spoiler effect, there is no pressure for third parties to merge with larger parties, and voters can vote their preference without fear of causing their least favorite candidate to win. We will have a chance to vote on adopting this system in Maine in November.

While Ranked Choice Voting is a promising electoral reform, it will probably take a long time for it to spread to the national level. In the meantime, in national elections we are stuck with our clunky old plurality system and the likely dominance of two parties for a while. As long as two parties dominate, the presidential primaries will be a highly contentious and important part of our politics. So what can we do to make presidential primaries better?

Right off the bat, let’s get rid of caucuses, and move to primaries. Don’t get confused here – the whole thing is called the presidential primary, but individual states can do it two ways: caucus style or primary style.

Caucuses are the arcane, party run, meeting style voting systems that so many voters, including Maine voters, have struggled with this primary season. Primaries are more of a classic voting scenario, run by the state, with private voting in booths. Much more simple, straightforward, easy for voters, and much higher voter participation. Pretty much a no-brainer.

Luckily, Maine Senator Justin Alfond has introduced a bill to do just that, and it seems to have broad, bipartisan support, and a good shot at passing this legislative session. A rare bird indeed, these days.

The next obvious reform is to get rid of superdelegates. I’m looking at you, Democrats (though Republicans have a few too). As long as the primaries are so important, any element that is run less than democratically is going to elicit howls.

There’s a history here, and it goes roughly like this: Through 1968, party insiders picked nominees in smoke filled rooms. In 1968, a more engaged voting populace rioted when party insiders ignored their votes. After 1968, there were some wonderful reforms that made Democratic primaries completely democratic, with no special status for anyone. Democrats lost the next two out of three elections, and chickened out of democracy. They created superdelegates, the number of which has fluctuated over the years, but currently stands at 15% of delegates. In this primary election, people are rightly outraged over their influence.

Getting rid of superdelegates requires a rule change on the national Democratic Party level. Democratic state delegates elect Democratic national delegates, and national delegates can make rule changes. So if you’re a state delegate, make sure you elect national delegates that support getting rid of superdelegates. And if you’re a national delegate, make sure you do everything in your power to get it done. If you’re anyone else, or an organization, or a County or Municipal Democratic Party, speak up and let our Democratic national representatives know you’re sick and tired of superdelegates.

That’s my two cents. The primaries are so terribly contentious in the U.S. because we only have two political parties. To make it better, either adopt a voting system that gives us multiple parties, or adopt some common sense reforms to make the primary process more democratic. Since the former is going to take a while, let’s get going on the latter so the next primary season can be a little more fair.

Photo via Flickr/ABC

About author

April Thibodeau
April Thibodeau 11 posts

April Thibodeau majored in Political Science at the University of Maine and has experience in law, non-profit work and political advocacy. She lives on Westport Island with her husband and two cats and enjoys gardening, homesteading and rural life.


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