A Post-Pandemic Voting Reform Agenda

With primaries as with everything else, we can’t just go back to the way things were.

By Rob Richie David Daley

Tagged DemocracyElections

Former Vice President Joe Biden has been the presumptive Democratic nominee since his comeback victories on Super Tuesday. So when Senator Bernie Sanders officially left the stage last week, the contest ended largely with a whisper.

Yet for the voters in more than 20 states where primaries had been postponed or were yet to be held, the party’s presidential race ended even more quietly. Democrats in Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and several other states won’t get any say at all.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Forty percent of American states, representing more than 35 percent of the nation’s population, shouldn’t be excluded from meaningful participation in choosing their party’s standard bearer—whether these primaries have been postponed over something as serious as a pandemic, or simply because their states consistently vote late due to an accidental quirk in the electoral calendar.

Election reformers, understandably, are focused on ensuring that November’s elections are safe, fair, and secure during a national emergency that could make in-person voting too risky. The images from Wisconsin—voters in homemade masks, braving serious illness, standing in long, socially distanced lines—should not be easily forgotten.

But as the curtain comes down on the Democratic contest, it’s important to reflect on what we’ve learned about how the primary process can be improved. After all, with either a second-term Republican in the White House or a Democrat who would turn 80 during his first 4 years, the 2024 race will begin sooner than we know it, potentially on both sides, and certainly with crowded fields. 

We should also incorporate lessons from the pandemic into any possible reforms. Just imagine if stay-at-home orders in nearly every state had come two weeks earlier, prior to Super Tuesday, and before Biden opened a commanding lead. Postponed primaries, the impossibility of rallies and retail campaigning, and uncertainty around what would almost certainly be a virtual brokered convention would have added worrisome levels of uncertainty into an already challenging moment for our democracy.

Some of these fixes are easy. Some require more dramatic rethinking. Here’s where the conversation should begin.

Emulate what went right. More than 15 states needed to postpone primaries due to the pandemic. This could have monkey-wrenched the entire primary process if the nomination remained unsettled. Democrats in four states, however, made important adjustments prior to 2020 that essentially emergency-proofed their primaries. In Kansas, Wyoming, Alaska, and Hawaii, officials expanded mail-in voting with a ranked-choice ballot. As a result, when in-person voting created a health risk, in many cases ballots had already been distributed. Officials merely curtailed the in-person component, added additional collection centers, and gave voters additional time to return ballots. No chaos, no court cases, no drama. 

Adopt ranked choice voting. Ranked choice voting (RCV) has an additional benefit that would have helped protect millions of voters this year. Not only did the nomination process finish before many Americans got the chance to cast a vote, but far too many of those votes were cast early for candidates who quit the race before primary day. Well over two million votes—about one out of ten of every vote cast in the Democratic race—went toward a withdrawn “zombie” candidate.

Voters who want the convenience of voting early shouldn’t be blamed if their preferred candidate drops out on the eve of voting, as Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar did on the eve of Super Tuesday. Ranked choice voting would give every voter a backup, allow every voice to be heard, and ensure that no ballots are wasted. When it was used in Alaska’s Democratic primary, nearly all of the 11 percent of voters who backed a withdrawn candidate had their ballot counted in the final round, as a backup choice for either Sanders or Biden.

Let voters winnow the field. During the course of 2019 and 2020, a record-setting and diverse Democratic field quickly dwindled as candidates lost access to the debate stage because of low poll or fundraising numbers. Those meaningless early polls, largely based on name recognition—before most Americans have tuned in and before anyone has cast a vote—forced early exits for such national voices as Senators Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kristen Gillibrand, and Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who has earned acclaim for his handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Debates and beauty-contest polls shouldn’t narrow the field. Voters should. RCV would help there, as well. In a field with two dozen candidates, it’s hard for any candidate who isn’t already well-known to gain traction among voters or attention from the media, no matter their qualifications. Voters, understandably, then feel as if they must choose among the leading candidates or else risk helping the front-runner they like least by backing the candidate they like most. RCV’s “instant runoff” feature allows everyone to vote with their heart and their head.

Fix the schedule. New Hampshire and Iowa play a wildly outsized role, and the caucus debacle in Iowa offers an opportunity to rethink the early contests. Too many Americans live in a state with little or no influence. More Americans, and every state, should get to play a role in determining their party’s nominee. We must avoid cutting the same 20-plus states out of the process next time. The parties should adopt a version of Thomas Gangale’s American Plan, and establish a lottery that rotates the stature and attention that comes with voting first, and determines a series of grouped “Super Tuesdays” that give everyone a chance to decide the early frontrunners. We could even hold a national runoff primary with the top three, four or five finishers at the conclusion of the grouped Super Tuesdays, again with RCV, so that the candidate with the widest support wins.

The process needs fixing. Giant pools of candidates create the possibility of plurality winners who only represent a sliver of the party. These fractured fields cause the primary system to break down: It’s much harder to generate a consensus winner when candidates win Iowa and New Hampshire without even generating 30 percent of the vote. It also weakens democracy when multiple candidates jump out of the race before Super Tuesday, consolidating support behind one candidate, stranding the early votes of millions of Americans, and rendering future contests irrelevant for huge swaths of the nation.

There’s an immediate challenge in front of us: A November election that could take on a radically different form than most Americans are accustomed to. As we protect this fall’s vote, let’s also not lose sight of the important and easy fixes we can make to preserve and improve democracy for many more cycles to come.

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Rob Richie is the president and CEO of FairVote.

David Daley is the author of Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy and a senior fellow at FairVote.

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