The Primaries Are Just Dumb

I tend to skip newspaper editorials. They’re usually bland, as if written by a committee. Probably because that’s partly true. The New York Times editorial board and the Washington Post editorial board are responsible for the editorials in those papers.

But the Times got one right the other day. The seventeen journalists on their editorial board pointed out that “the primaries are just dumb”.

Quote:

As the country learned in 2016 with Republicans, the primaries and caucuses are a mess, giving the illusion of a choice in a situation where in fact voters have just the opposite — no clear choice. This year, Bernie Sanders won close to a majority in Nevada, but in the two earlier contests, in Iowa and New Hampshire, no candidate won more than 26 percent of the vote. This fragmentation helps those candidates with passionate followings, like Mr. Sanders, as it helped D—- T—- in 2016, but it produces nothing like a consensus candidate. Mr. Sanders has won only 2.3 percent of the 1,991 delegates needed to secure the nomination, yet he’s widely considered the front-runner.

Single-winner elections do a poor job of winnowing a large field of candidates down to one who reflects majority agreement, and encourage the type of nastiness we’re seeing now, because it’s all-or-nothing for each candidate. And the winner of this process can be the choice of as little as 25 or 30 percent of the electorate, which is another way of saying that he or she was not the choice of up to three-quarters of voters.

This is no way to pick the person who will challenge a president — one who was himself nominated first by a minority within his party, then elected by a minority nationwide.

There is a straightforward and elegant solution: ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting. Already in use all over the world and in cities and towns across the United States, it’s a popular and proven way of electing leaders who are — what a radical notion! — actually supported by most voters. It is effective in any multi-candidate race, but it’s ideal for making sense of a large and fractured pool of candidates.

Ranked-choice voting works on a simple premise: Instead of being forced to choose a single candidate, voters rank some or all of the candidates in order of preference — they rank their favorite candidate first, their next-favorite candidate second, and so on. If one candidate wins a majority of the vote outright, he or she is the winner. If not, the ballots are tallied in a series of rounds. In each round, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated. Each ballot ranking that candidate first is then transferred to the candidate whom it ranked second. The process repeats, eliminating the lowest-scoring candidate and redistributing his or her ballots, until one candidate has more than 50 percent of the vote.

How would ranked-choice voting work in primaries with many candidates? We’ll find out this year, when four states are using it for the first time: Wyoming, Alaska, Hawaii and Kansas. As in all other Democratic primaries, they will award delegates proportionally to candidates who win at least 15 percent of the vote. But rather than simply eliminate any candidates who don’t reach that threshold, the ballots listing those candidates first will be transferred to their second-place choices, a process that will be repeated until all remaining candidates have at least 15 percent support.

Say a Wyoming voter is partial to Elizabeth Warren, but feels she doesn’t have much of a chance at hitting 15 percent. He could list Ms. Warren first and, perhaps, Mr. Sanders second. If Ms. Warren fails to get 15 percent of first-place votes in the first round, but Mr. Sanders does, that voter’s ballot would be transferred to him. Millions of votes in the Democratic primaries this year will be cast for candidates who don’t reach the 15-percent cutoff; adopting ranked-choice nationwide would make those votes count for delegates, and thus include those voters in the Democrats’ choice of their nominee.

Polls consistently show high voter satisfaction with ranked-choice voting, and it’s no surprise. By allowing voters to express their support for more than one candidate, ranked-choice voting makes more votes count. By allowing voters to rank a personal favorite first, even if that candidate is unlikely to win, it eliminates the risk of “spoiler” candidates. And by encouraging voters to find something they like in multiple candidates, it fosters consensus.

The candidates respond in turn, by behaving more civilly and reaching out to voters beyond their own base. Running a negative, divisive campaign may pay off in a head-to-head (-to-head-to-head, etc.) election, but not in a ranked-choice one, where victory can depend on appealing not just to a core of supporters, but also to voters who might not be inclined to pick the civil candidate first.

Consider what happened in Maine’s Second Congressional District in the 2018 midterms. Maine first adopted ranked-choice voting in 2016 for its statewide and congressional primaries and elections, and it was popular enough that the Legislature expanded it in 2019 to include presidential elections.

The Second District race featured the Republican incumbent, Bruce Poliquin; his Democratic challenger, Jared Golden; and two independent candidates. After the first round of ballot counting, Mr. Poliquin held a small lead over Mr. Golden, 46.3 percent to 45.6 percent. The independent candidates combined to win about 8 percent, and when they were eliminated in the second and third rounds, more of their votes transferred to Mr. Golden, who ultimately won with more than 50 percent of the vote — even though he won fewer first-choice rankings than Mr. Poliquin. In contrast to Mr. Poliquin, who had publicly dismissed the independent candidates, Mr. Golden reached out to them, and thus won over their supporters. Republicans cried foul, but the voters ended up with a congressional representative who was actually representative.

Maine is the only state to have used ranked-choice statewide, but the reform has been catching on everywhere, from California, Minnesota and Colorado to Utah, Massachusetts and Maryland. Last year, voters in New York City overwhelmingly approved ranked-choice voting for their mayoral, City Council and special elections and primaries starting in 2021 — the largest jurisdiction in the country, by far, to try it….

How voters cast their primary ballots is one big area for reform. When they do so is another.

Right now, the primary calendar is cracking under the weight of its own anachronisms. Iowa and New Hampshire, two of the smallest and least diverse states, get outsize attention every presidential election year from the candidates, and therefore have power in determining the arc of the race, long before a vast majority of voters have weighed in. A better system would group state primaries in bunches, making sure to include a diversity of size, geography and demographics in each group, and rotating which group goes first every four years.

No democracy can long maintain its legitimacy with open-ended minority rule. Neither can political parties.

Unquote.

One thing the Times didn’t mention is that ranked-choice voting would address a problem that affects voting before election day (as in voting by mail) in primary elections, when there are a number of candidates. A major Democratic candidate, Pete Buttigieg, dropped out of the race today. Other candidates have dropped out in the past week or so. If voters had been able to name their second and third choices, their votes could have gone to someone still in the race. Now their votes will be wasted.

Also, we have to get rid of caucuses. Voting out in the open in front of everyone makes no sense. Secret ballots are a foundation of democracy. Making that change should be an easy one, even in America.

These Caucuses Suck

Bernie Sanders won big in Nevada, so hardly any members of the news media herd are focused on how bad the caucus process was (just like in Iowa earlier this month). How about using secret ballots instead?

From Stephen Stromberg of The Washington Post:

Unlike in Iowa, it did not take long to declare a winner in Saturday’s Nevada Democratic caucuses. That doesn’t mean the system worked well — it didn’t. Nevada looked orderly only because Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s victory was so lopsided, the networks could call the race with hardly any results.

Some 18 hours after the caucuses wrapped up, results were in from only about half of the state’s precincts — the consequence of cumbersome rules, a jammed reporting hotline and extensive data collection requirements. This mess is what happens when [political] parties insist on running their own private caucuses rather than allowing states to hold primary elections. Indeed, even if the caucuses had worked more smoothly, they would still have been an embarrassing spectacle. They are a terrible way to choose a presidential nominee.

The process I don’t like at all,” said Paul Anthony, a food server attending a caucus Saturday at the Bellagio resort. “I think sometimes this room might intimidate people into not wanting to come vote.”

The Nevada Democratic Party might be surprised at Anthony’s dissatisfaction, given that it tried hard this year to fix its caucus system, offering people more ways to participate. But the party instead proved that the caucus system is fundamentally flawed. One major reason: Peer pressure should have no place in voting.

For all their effort, Nevada Democrats could not fix this inherent problem: There was no secret ballot. At the Bellagio caucus, hotel shift workers had to walk to one side of a large, open conference room, amid a crowd of coworkers, to express their presidential preference. After an initial count, those favoring candidates who had garnered little support could move to a different group. These realigning caucus-goers had to walk to another part of the room with all eyes trained on them, colleagues beckoning them to their side.

It is tempting to make nice with your coworkers, stay with the crowd and avoid sticking out. It is only human to want to satisfy the campaign organizers who may have chatted with you on your way in, who are now observing from the wings. It is all too easy to note the presence of the Culinary Workers Union official attending the caucus…. It is natural to be a little freaked out by television cameras recording your every alignment and realignment.

The campaigns were allowed to have observers on site as long as they were few and quiet, so as to minimize pressure on caucus participants. The Sanders observers were instead many and loud. They packed the corner reserved for caucus observers, cheering, waving at caucus-goers, pumping their fists into the air. After the first count showed strong support for the Vermont senator, one Sanders campaign staffer cried. During the realignment, when it was perhaps most important for them to let the caucus participants make their choices absent outside urging, they chanted “Bernie, Bernie, Bernie” and pointed toward the Sanders side of the room… Sanders surrogate Gilbert Cedillo interrupted a caucus-goer’s speech when he clapped abruptly at the mention of Medicare-for-all.

Don’t scorn Cedillo or any of the other Sanders supporters. They showed up because they are passionate. Blame a system that allowed them into a room where everyday people were just trying to express their preference for who should be the Democratic presidential nominee — a room that did not have a single ballot booth.

The only sensible defense of caucuses is that they allow people to shift their support to a second-choice candidate if their first choice is not viable. But Nevada — and every other caucus state — could offer voters this flexibility through a ranked-choice voting system like the one that Maine has used, without accepting all the built-in problems of caucusing. Let people — in secret — submit a shortlist of candidates in the order of their preference. In fact, the Nevada Democratic Party introduced this year a version of ranked-choice voting for people who wanted to caucus early, the results of which were meshed with the live caucus results obtained Saturday. The party could simply ditch the old system and move entirely to the new one. It would be much fairer….

Voting should not be a performance. No one should feel intimidated, as Anthony rightly worried. Everyone should be able to lie to their coworkers about who they support — or decline to say — and save their authentic opinion for the seclusion of the ballot booth. Anything else is indefensible.

Unquote.

Twenty-four hours after the caucuses began, the Post has results from 50% of the precincts. At least one campaign is questioning how the early voting results were integrated into the caucus results. This is a mess that the national Democratic Party needs to fix. They have two years before the next national election. That is enough time to get it right and eliminate these stupid, undemocratic caucuses.