Ranked Voting in Presidential Primaries

By Thomas Gangale
Published February 8th 2008 in Berkeley Daily Planet
My recently published book on presidential primaries started as an independent study project out of the political science department at San Francisco State University in 2003. My advisor on the project, Professor Rich DeLeon, was (and is) an advocate for ranked balloting. “This suggestion is perhaps a bit too far over the horizon of political reality, but I’d like to see a rider attached to your proposed reform requiring all primary victors to win a majority of the vote, either by runoff if necessary or, optimally by some kind of ranked-ballot method, which would also yield terrific in-depth info about a candidate’s strengths in terms of second-place votes received, third-place votes, etc.”

I didn’t immediately see an application for ranked voting in presidential primaries. “If a candidate wins a plurality of 27 percent, shouldn’t he or she get what’s coming... 27 percent of the delegates? Instant runoff voting does not apply to presidential primaries, because there nothing to instantly run off, no office to immediately be filled; rather it is a competition for state delegates to a national convention. The functional equivalent of a runoff, if necessary, occurs at the national level at the national party convention through successive balloting. If delegates are awarded on a proportional basis, this is functionally equivalent to proportional representation.”

Experience is another teacher. On Jan. 30, 2008, I marked my ballot for California’s Feb. 5 presidential primary and mailed it. There were eight candidates listed for the Democratic nomination, but most of them had already dropped out of the race. That was bad in itself, of course, but it had been easy to predict that the real choices would have dwindled to two or three by Super Tuesday. My proposed reform of the presidential primary system is meant to redress that problem, allow more candidates to stay in the race longer, and give more voters more choices. I considered the remaining field of candidates and chose John Edwards.

About an hour later, I learned the Edwards had dropped out of the race, leaving only Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Although it has so many other things going for it, that’s a down side of voting by mail, but it doesn’t have to be that way. At that point I saw that if I have been able to rank several choices for president, my vote wouldn’t have been wasted. Since my first choice was out of the race, my ballot could have defaulted to my second choice, and if that candidate also dropped out before the election, my ballot could have defaulted to my third choice. It would be a bit more work, but I could vote my conscience and be quite confident that my vote would count.

Another application of ranked voting came to light in a recent conversation with Steve Chessin, president of Californians for Electoral Reform: suppose a presidential candidate’s percentage of the vote is below the threshold required to be awarded delegates to the national convention? That candidate’s supporters are disenfranchised. For example, if John Edwards had stayed in the race, but he had failed to capture 15 percent of the vote, according to the California Democratic Party’s rules, he wouldn’t have been awarded any delegates.

That’s democracy?

On the other hand, if voters could rank candidates, their votes would never be wasted. If the first choice didn’t reach the fifteen-percent threshold, a voter’s ballot could be counted toward the second choice, and so on, until the ballot counted toward the awarding of delegates to some candidate. The threshold requirement makes sense to the party, which is interested in determining the presidential nominee with a minimum of internecine strife. But what about those voters whose candidates—and there might be several such candidates in a race—don’t meet the threshold? Ranked voting offers a mechanism that should satisfy the interests of the party and the voters.

The California Democratic Party platform states that the party will “encourage, where feasible, instant run-off elections.” This should be taken to include ranked voting in its own primary elections. Job One is election integrity: ensuring that every vote is counted as marked. As we work toward that goal, we should also be thinking about the next step—election fidelity—to ensure that every vote counts toward some non-zero outcome.

Thomas Gangale is the author of From the Primaries to the Polls: How to Repair America’s Broken Presidential Nomination Process, published by Praeger.