If the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary were held today, the results would be disastrous. That is, at least as far as representative democracy is concerned.
A new YouGov poll released by the University of Massachusetts Amherst shows that New Hampshire primary voters are split between the deluge of candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for president. Joe Biden ranks first at 28 percent, Bernie Sanders follows at 20 percent, and the rest of the field garners anywhere from 1 to 14 percent.
The problem does not concern the frontrunners. Rather, it is the fact that 43 percent of voters favor a candidate polling below 15 percent of the vote. (9 percent of voters remain completely undecided).
Treating 15 percent as a magic metric, at first glance, appears bizarre. But in the Democratic presidential primary, reaching 15 percent is critical.
The Democratic presidential primaries award delegates proportionally. If a candidate wins 40 percent of the vote, he or she is entitled to at least 40 percent of the delegates. Compared to a strict winner-take-all system—one that would award all the delegates to the candidate with the most votes—this method is quite representative.
Here’s the catch: In order to qualify for proportional allocation of delegates, a Democratic candidate must surpass 15 percent of the vote. If a candidate wins 14.9% of a state’s primary electorate—a significant tally in a fractured field—to paraphrase a line from Seinfeld, no delegates for you. (The candidate(s) reaching the threshold receive bonus delegates to offset votes excluded from delegate allocation.)
Thresholds serve a valuable role. Without them, delegates would be splintered among far too many candidates, leading almost certainly to acontested or even brokered convention. As far as the party is concerned, a convention in flux should be avoided at all costs. Yet, as illustrated, in a historically crowded primary, thresholds could potentially disenfranchise the majority of voters. And due to the threshold, there would be no meaningful difference between placing third (with 14%) versus last (with 1%) if the YouGov survey held steady.
Make no mistake, the New Hampshire primary is a year away. Joe Biden and Beto O’Rourke haven't even declared—and may never do so. Voter preferences will no doubt fluctuate. In fact, the YouGov poll shows a sizeable number of undecided voters, and 82 percent of respondents suggested they would be open to voting for another candidate. Moreover, candidates who haven’t had much time to develop name recognition could consolidate the non-delegate-eligible vote, and others may simply drop out of the race, freeing up voters. In sum, much could and will likely change.
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But assuming this undemocratic situation will naturally resolve—or at least mitigate—itself is imprudent, especially for a party that now prides itself on championing democracy reform. Settling for potentially tens of thousands of wasted votes in the first-in-the-nation primary would justifiably warrant accusations of hypocrisy.
Luckily, as with many flaws in our democracy, the solution is both simple and easily implementable: ranked choice voting (RCV).
RCV in the presidential primary would allow voters to rank candidates in preferential order. If one or more candidates fail to reach the delegate threshold, their votes would be reassigned—starting with the lowest vote-getting candidate—according to voters’ subsequent preferences. This process would continue until each remaining candidate has surpassed the delegate threshold. With that, there would be virtually no wasted votes.
Ranked choice voting in the presidential primary is an idea whose time has come. In Iowa, the state Democratic party has included the use of ranked choice voting for up to five candidates in its proposed enhancement of the caucus system. A similar legislative effort is underway in Maine. Just last week, Maine Senate President Troy Jackson introduced LD 1083 to give voters the ability to rank their choices in both the presidential primary and the general election in 2020.
And in New Hampshire, a presidential primary RCV bill may soon be introduced in the State Senate. Earlier this year, NH State Representative Ellen Read introduced a separate RCV bill that generated noticeable public support in the House, but did not garner enough votes to pass.
Ultimately, there is still time to adopt ranked choice voting for the 2020 presidential primaries. But the clock is ticking. The Democratic Party should therefore signal to state lawmakers and party leaders that RCV would be welcome. Likewise, presidential candidates could bring much-needed attention to the idea by publicly supporting it.
Reforming the presidential primary will not be easy. But Americans should not settle for a broken primary process. Our democratic values are too essential to compromise.