Making presidential primaries relevant again to Mass. voters

Ranked choice voting would help bring some clarity to process

MASSACHUSETTS VOTERS care about presidential elections. Many knock on doors in New Hampshire or phone bank to voters in Florida and Ohio. Of course, they may also vote for president, but they do so knowing that what really matters will happen somewhere else.

For 2020, Massachusetts can at last make itself a state that matters. The Electoral College system likely won’t change in time, but Massachusetts right now can make an historic improvement in a critical component of electing a president: the party primaries.

A big problem with the primaries stems from our tradition of limiting voters to only one choice. That works for two candidates, but collapses with a huge, dozen-or-more field as we are likely to see in the 2020 Democratic primary. Democratic Party rules allocate delegates proportionally to all candidates who pass a 15 percent threshold. An early primary crowded with strong candidates might end up with the winner garnering 16 percent of the vote. Is it fair for 84 percent of voters to be shut out for a 16-percent-candidate to declare victory?

Ranked choice voting solves this problem. It would enable voters to rank their presidential primary choices first, second, third, and so on. The tabulation proceeds in rounds with the candidate having the fewest votes eliminated at each round, and ballots for that candidate then counted for the next ranked choices. To accommodate party rules, the Democratic primary tabulation would have two phases. In the first phase, the elimination rounds would proceed until all remaining candidates passed the 15% threshold, and delegates would then be allocated in proportion to the vote share at that point.  The second phase would complete the elimination process, revealing both the winner and the percent of voters supporting that candidate . In this system, voters who gave first choice to candidates who fell short of the threshold could still see a second or third choice win delegates, and the winner would have truly earned the extra media attention.

Ranked choice voting proved its mettle in 2018 in its first uses in Maine’s primary and congressional elections, which showed that people welcome more choice just as much in voting as in other areas of life. In several crowded races, turnout was up, voters adjusted to the new system with extremely few errors, and the cost was much less than expected. In the seven-way Democratic primary for governor, nearly nine in ten voters used their new power to rank candidates, with more than three times as many voters ranking at least six gubernatorial candidates as only one.

Maine’s experience is relevant for the Commonwealth because Massachusetts is the state most likely to follow Maine’s lead. Voter Choice Massachusetts is the nation’s largest citizens’ movement supporting ranked choice voting, with endorsements from a who’s who of state leaders and opinion shapers – critically including Secretary of State William Galvin, who will be in charge of implementing the reform. Legislation to enact ranked choice voting for most major offices has already gained 82 co-sponsors.

Beacon Hill leadership should recognize the state’s momentum for ranked choice voting and the importance of the 2020 primaries and give priority to passing ranked choice voting. Republican presidential primaries are sure to see another crowded field before long, making this a nonpartisan issue. Indeed, for down-ballot offices, Republicans have the most to gain from a system that ensures the most-supported candidate wins in crowded primaries.

Meet the Author

Kevin Johnson

Executive director, Election Reformers Network
Meet the Author
In recent years, the Massachusetts Legislature has been doing the right thing on election reform, but slowly. The state finally acted on important reforms such as early voting and online registration in 2014, and last year passed automatic registration.  We don’t have the luxury of time with ranked choice voting for presidential primaries. We owe it to our democracy to have the greater clarity that ranked choice voting can provide for the upcoming primaries. Massachusetts can lead the way.

 Kevin Johnson, a Massachusetts resident, is executive director of Election Reformers Network. Rob Richie is president and CEO of FairVote.