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A collection of pins from different campaigns at Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price's office in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 30, 2020. (Photo: KEREM YUCEL/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)

A collection of pins from different campaigns at Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price's office in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 30, 2020. (Photo: KEREM YUCEL/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)

We’re Stuck With a Flawed Primary Process in 2020, But We Can Make 2024 Better

The combination of a chaotic and incoherent primary schedule and antiquated voting rules makes winning as much the product of dumb luck as anything relating to the quality of candidates and their ability to unify voters.

Rob Richie

After a year of campaigning, the first votes are about to be cast in the 2020 presidential primaries. While Donald Trump has an apparent lock on the Republican nomination, Democrats have a wide open contest. Of the dozen remaining candidates, polls suggest that none will receive even 30% of the vote in the early states.

Unfortunately, the combination of a chaotic and incoherent primary schedule and antiquated voting rules makes winning as much the product of dumb luck as anything relating to the quality of candidates and their ability to unify voters. The White House and American governance are on the line, but our parties and policymakers keep dropping the ball. Let's hope they get it right by 2024.

The most obvious flaw is the dominant role that Iowa and New Hampshire play by voting first. Dating back decades, this schedule favors candidates based on geographic accidents, such as Massachusetts politicians Michael Dukakis, John Kerry and Mitt Romney getting propelled to their party’s nomination by wins in neighboring New Hampshire.

It gets worse. Ballotpedia reports that the remaining Democratic candidates collectively held nearly 700 campaign events in those two states alone in 2019. While having an intense vetting process is valuable, states have different priorities, and all but four states have more racially and ethnically diverse electorates than Iowa and New Hampshire.

More states should enjoy a chance to vote early, and all states should play a more influential role. Thomas Gangale’s American Plan would use a lottery to identify which states vote first and which follow in grouped contests that reflect a gradual increase in total voters and establish a rotation that ensures big states don’t always vote last.

To be truly fair, any process should conclude in a contest similar to how we nominate nearly all state and congressional candidates: on the basis of one person, one vote. Holding a national primary after state contests winnow the field would give all voters an equal say, avoid “brokered conventions” when no candidate earns a majority of delegates and establish a high turnout primary that could also decide congressional nominations.

There’s a second big problem with our current rules: limiting voters to one choice no matter how large the field. That limitation has profound implications. Take number-cruncher Nate Silver’s recent analysis of why Sen. Elizabeth Warren needs to win Iowa. Silver rates Warren’s chances to secure the nomination as greater than 50% if she wins Iowa, but less than 20% if she does not.

In the quest for convention delegates, getting 25% compared to another's 24% is meaningless because delegates are allocated in proportion to votes. It's all about media perception of “momentum,” but our single choice system makes “winning” barely fairer than rolling dice. The difference between winning and losing will be essentially a random chance based on how candidates with common bases of voter support happen to split their votes.

Iowa at least gives supporters of weaker candidates a backup vote. If, for example, a candidate earns 5% at a caucus and isn't viable for that precinct, those voters can move to have their vote count for their next choice who has enough support to win delegates. Half of all Iowa Democrats may well end up supporting a backup choice. This makes more votes count, and rewards candidates who can help unify the party by picking up support from trailing candidates.

But it still doesn’t change the real potential that the “winner” might have lost badly in a head-to-head matchup against the second-place finisher. That’s why parties should fully embrace ranked-choice voting. One of the year’s most encouraging developments is that early Democratic voters in Nevada and all Democratic voters in Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas and Wyoming will cast ranked-choice ballots in their party-run presidential contests.

With ranked-choice voting, voters rank candidates in order of choice: first, second and so on. If voters’ first choice has enough support to win delegates, their ballots will count for that candidate. Otherwise, those ballots will end up counting for the candidate ranked next who is viable.

That's far better than a single choice system, but the media ideally would spotlight the winner as the candidate who wins the “instant runoff” after all but the top two candidates have been dropped and their votes reallocated to next choices. This form of ranked choice voting is used in Maine's federal elections and more than 20 cities. All parties would benefit from this system going forward.

The rules for 2020 are set. By 2024, let's make them fair and better for all.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Rob Richie

Rob Richie is president and CEO of FairVote

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