If you ask most people walking down the street these days in any Utah town or city just what they think about today’s political elections, you’ll likely hear how many people are frustrated with the process.
They feel the candidates on the ballot don’t really represent them, but they worry a third party candidate will split the vote, so they try to accept what so many refer to as “the lesser of two evils.”
They are also disappointed to see election campaigns continue to become more and more negative and less and less focused on the issues that impact every day lives in Utah.
These frustrations, and more, have more and more people looking for a new way forward.
The 2018 primary season will go down in history.
Across the country the 2018 primary season called plenty of notice to itself.
- A record number of women secured party nominations, including the headline-making upsets by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley. Retiring incumbents drew large numbers of diverse candidates competing for the open seat.
- Voter turnout peaked in several states and districts with competitive primaries.
- Topping the highlight reel was Maine, which became the first state in the country to use ranked choice voting in its June primary, with plans to carry the more democratic voting method through to choose its federal representatives in November.
But not all of the standout moments from the 2018 primaries can be characterized as successes.
Shockingly low plurality wins riddle the nation
The crowded fields occupied by many viable contenders led to shockingly low plurality wins in many key races.
A glaring example of this can be seen through recent news coverage concentrated on the 10-way Democratic primary for Massachusetts’ 3rd Congressional District, results of which were finalized in a recount that ended two weeks later.
While the narrow margin that separated winner Lori Trahan from runner-up Dan Koh – ultimately 143 votes according to the recount – drew no shortage of attention, the even more disturbing number to come out of the primary was the 22 percent of votes that gave Trahan the win.
Nearly 80 percent of voters did not vote for the winning candidate
As The Boston Globe noted in an editorial on the outcome, that meant nearly 80 percent of voters picked someone else.
Because of this, voters, and candidates, were left feeling unsatisfied by the winner-takes-all system. I
t’s hard to imagine a better advertisement for ranked-choice voting than this race, which featured an unusually diverse, high-caliber field. In a ranked-choice system, voters mark a first choice, a second choice, and so forth. If a candidate earns more than 50 percent of first-choice votes, the election is over.
But in a case like the Massachusetts Third District, where no candidate reaches a majority, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and his or her votes are redistributed according to the second choices voters marked on their ballots, until a candidate hits 50 percent.
Massachusetts and Beyond
Similar low plurality wins occurred elsewhere too, notably in the Republican primary in Pennsylvania’s newly created 13th Congressional District. Retired physician John Joyce emerged the victor from the field of eight candidates with 22 percent of vote.
No matter what side of the political aisle you fall on, the flagrant violation for America’s majority rule principle is cause for concern, especially when considering that both these primary winners are favored to take the general election, too.
And that’s just the tip of the un-democratic iceberg.
A dozen congressional primaries were won with the support of less than 30 percent of voters, while another 37 primary victors secured their party nomination with less than 40 percent of the votes, according to FairVote data on plurality voting primaries for House, Senate, governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general seats. (Note that states that use alternative systems like a “top two” primary or a primary runoff were not included in our data).
From Alaska to Oklahoma, New Hampshire to Florida, a whopping 117 primary races for federal and state positions resulted in non-majoritarian outcomes. And at least 19 of those low plurality primary victors will win seats in November, given their districts’ partisan leanings.
Voters look to Ranked Choice Voting
Ranked choice voting offers a solution that ensures election winners are chosen with the broadest possible percent of voters support.
Consider how RCV worked in Maine’s seven-way Democratic gubernatorial primary.
After none of the candidates secured a majority of first choice votes, the last place candidate was eliminated and those voters’ second choices were redistributed among the remaining candidates. By round four, Attorney General Janet Mills had crossed the 50 percent threshold, securing the nomination.
Under plurality voting, the race could have become bogged down in debates over how to vote strategically. Mills would probably have still prevailed, but with a mere plurality – in the first round she earned only 33 percent of first choices.
In races with closer margins between winner and runner-up – like the .04 percent that separated Kris Kobach and Jeff Koyler in Kansas’ Republican gubernatorial primary, an RCV ballot might have changed the outcome.
When winners are chosen with less than 50 percent of the vote, everyone suffers.
The point is not which candidate wins, or even which political party. Because when winners are chosen with less than 50 percent of the vote, everyone suffers.
Victors can’t claim they truly have the broadest support of voters. Runners-up will always wonder whether their losses were simply because of low plurality outcomes. And voters remain poorly represented by an anti-democratic system.
Not to mention, the problems plaguing our current electoral process remain and grow even more: low voter turnout, polarized candidates, negative campaigns and more.
Ranked Choice Voting in Utah
Utah has never been afraid to standout from other states and lead the way as an example. We now have the opportunity to do the same in regard to using ranked choice voting this coming year.
On March 13, 2018, Governor Gary Herbert signed Utah House Bill 35 ( HB0035) allowing municipalities to pilot ranked choice voting or instant runoff voting. The bill passed with an overwhelming majority of 22-0 in the Senate, 67-3 in House; 11-1 in interim committee, and 7-0 in Senate Government Operations.
House Bill 35 allows municipal elections to use ranked choice voting. The pilot runs from 2019 to 2026.
You can contact your city council to encourage them to pilot ranked choice voting in upcoming elections.