Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Ranked Choice Voting in 2024 Presidential Primaries, Part Two

See Part One: Ranked Choice Voting in 2024 Presidential Primaries -- 2023 legislation 

Rules and the National Parties

In part one of this two-part series, FHQ examined states where legislation may expand the reach of ranked choice voting (RCV) into the presidential nomination process. And incremental though that growth may be in the 2024 process, one point raised in that first post remains true: Neither national party has weighed in on ranked choice voting in the nomination process; not in an official capacity in any event. 

Given the partisan pattern observed in the RCV legislating on the state level thus far in the 2023 session, one might expect to see a Democratic National Committee more receptive to the practice and a Republican National Committee more inclined to stand against it. But again, the incremental, and to this point small, advances have not forced either party to act (or react) to RCV adoption on the state level in any corrective way or in an effort to provide guidance to state parties and state legislators. However, just because the national parties have not moved to officially regulate RCV or its expansion does not mean that the issue is not on the national parties' radars with respect to its potential impact on the presidential nomination process.

In fact, Democrats had a series of discussions concerning RCV throughout 2022 in the context of their push to finalize the rules package that will govern the 2024 nomination. To be clear, those efforts did not bear any fruit in terms of actual rules, but the discussions did provide a glimpse into where the national party -- or the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee (DNCRBC) anyway -- currently stands on the matter. While no rules for or against RCV made the 2024 DNC rules, there was an RCV-related rules change that was considered at the August DNCRBC meeting, a meeting that was initially set aside for making decisions on pre-window waivers for early states. But once the decision was made to punt on finalizing the states to receive waivers until after the midterms, that left considerable time for the panel to more broadly consider a bevy of other potential changes. It is not that those potential rules changes would have been given short shrift in a meeting dominated by the early primary calendar for 2024, but rather, that other possible amendments to the rules could be discussed more fully instead of quickly dispatched, whether for or against, without the calendar on the agenda. 

And so it was with a potential add-on to Rule 14.B brought to the table by David McDonald (WA) and Elaine Kamarck (MA). 

Rule 14.B describes the parameters of the 15 percent threshold presidential candidates must hit in order to win any delegates in any state or subunit therein. RCV can overlap with that process in several ways. In a traditional sense, RCV has been used to identify a majority winner in a contest. The system redistributes votes based on voters' collective preferences until there is a majority winner. But the delegate allocation process in the Democratic Party operates differently. It is not necessarily about candidates winning a majority, but about those candidates who clear that 15 percent barrier either statewide or within the various congressional districts within a state. 

That is an easy enough fix. The cut-off for redistribution can be moved from a majority to 15 percent like what has appeared in New Hampshire legislation attempting to institute RCV in recent years. But that is also what is missing from the RCV law that will be operable in Maine in 2024. That disparity between what is on the books in Maine and what may be codified in other states for 2024 is a reason for national parties to potentially offer guidance to states -- state governments and state parties -- considering changes to delegate selection processes for this current cycle. 

Moreover, another point where RCV and the delegate allocation process cross paths is in how and to whom the 15 percent threshold applies. As an illustration, recall FHQ's [exaggerated] example from part one:
Here is an example. Raymond Buckley, the New Hampshire Democratic Party chair, told Politico in making a case for the importance of the first-in-the-nation primary there, that Joe Biden was everyone's second choice in the Granite state primary in 2020. Biden, of course, came in fifth in the contest; something that every recent calendar story on New Hampshire Democrats potentially losing their position notes. And folks, Buckley's statement was figurative. He did not mean that Biden was literally every voter's second choice. But if one were to take him literally and assume that RCV had been in place in New Hampshire for 2020, then Biden would have stood to gain a lot of ground. 

How much ground? 

If the RCV bill considered in the Granite state in 2019 had become law, then three candidates -- Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar -- would have cleared the 15 percent threshold in the first round tabulation. But those three only accounted for 70 percent of the vote statewide. Under RCV, the votes of the remaining 30 percent would be redistributed based on voter preferences for the other various candidates. If one takes Buckley's notion literally -- that Biden was everyone's second choice -- then all of those redistributed votes from candidates under 15 percent would have gone to the eventual Democratic nominee, turning Biden's 8.4 percent into nearly 30 percent and a victory. 
Now, in that example, Biden vaults from fifth place in the initial tabulation to winning once votes have been redistributed under RCV. But who qualifies for delegates in that scenario? Does that 15 percent threshold apply to the results after the first tabulation or the final tabulation? That is a very meaningful distinction. And it appears, given the commentary from the members of the DNCRBC around this potential rules change in August, that rules makers lean toward the former. Biden may have hypothetically been everyone in New Hampshire's second choice in the 2020 presidential primary, but he only received just north of eight percent of first preferences. That falls well short of 15 percent. And more importantly, that hypothetical shift from eight percent among first preferences to around 30 percent and not only winning on a final tally, post-redistribution, but qualifying for delegates is not consistent with the tenor of the current threshold rule. 

But it is issues like those -- who qualifies for delegates and how -- that put reforms like RCV front and center before national party rules makers when those reforms overlap with existing processes. And it was those very issues that McDonald and Kamarck were trying to get out in front of heading into 2024. 

So, what was the proposed change? 

First, here is Rule 14.B as it was in 2020 and how it will be in 2024 (minus the struck line at the end):
Rule 14.B:
States shall allocate district-level delegates and alternates in proportion to the percentage of the primary or caucus vote won in that district by each preference, except that preferences falling below a fifteen percent (15%) threshold shall not be awarded any delegates. Subject to section F. of this rule, no state shall have a threshold above or below fifteen percent (15%). States which use a caucus/convention system, shall specify in their Delegate Selection Plans the caucus level at which such percentages shall be determined.
That is all clear enough. Rule 14.B sets a 15 percent -- no higher, no lower -- threshold to qualify for delegates. Now, here is the rider that McDonald and Kamarck proposed appending to the rule:
Nothing in this Rule is intended to prohibit a State from providing a second choice to a voter who casts a ballot for a candidate who is ineligible to be awarded delegates. A State that intends to provide such a second choice to voters must clearly describe its method for doing so in its proposed Delegate Selection Plan and comply with all regulations of the RBC relating to second choices. Delegates shall be allocated on the basis of the final vote and credentials challenges must be based on the final vote.
This addition is less clear. First of all, the amendment does not directly mention RCV. It neither supports nor opposes its use. But in defending its addition to the rule, McDonald cited a couple of goals: 1) the desire to get out ahead of what is likely to be further experimentation with RCV on the state level for 2024, and 2) setting some guardrails -- particularly candidates qualifying with 15 percent based on first preferences -- to save the DNCRBC some potential headaches during the delegate selection plan review process later in 2023. 

Both of those are noble enough goals. Yet, the language of the above amendment does not exactly spell out either. Also, as some DNCRBC members noted, that rule, if added, can be viewed as if not an indirect endorsement, then an indirect encouragement of RCV by the national party, an encouragement not consistent with the prevailing thinking among the committee members. 

And that is the key factor to tease from this August discussion: the prevailing thinking. The rule did not go anywhere. In fact, MacDonald withdrew the amendment so that the committee would not have to vote up or down on it and either directly or indirectly endorse or oppose RCV.  But the discussion around the possible change was enlightening with respect to where current members on the DNCRBC stand on the reform. Most members who spoke fell somewhere in the middle. The vast middle ground in this case occupies a space where the panel acknowledged that RCV is something that may incrementally advance for the 2024 cycle, but a reform about which the group wanted to remain "agnostic." There was no apparent appetite to craft a rule that would function as a tacit endorsement and would, in turn, potentially open up the floodgates for increased state consideration if not experimentation with RCV. 

In other words, let that experimentation happen organically and on a small scale that the DNCRBC could deal with in mid-2023 during the delegate selection plan approval stage. "Small scale" is important in this case. The only RCV usage in 2020 was in small states with state party-run processes. And the only official addition to this point for 2024 is the state of Maine. All the efforts so far at the state level in 2023 are also in small states. [The proposed RCV systems in New York and New Jersey would take effect after 2024 and those in Virginia already appear to be on life support as the commonwealth's 2023 session quickly comes to a close.] If that is the scale of the RCV expansion, then it is something the DNCRBC can tackle in the review process (even with unforeseen issues outside of RCV likely to present typical review stage problems).

Other members, however, spoke more forcefully against RCV. As if writing from the woods around Walden Pond, Frank Leone (DC) took a Thoreauvian position to "simplify, simplify, simplify." As he said, "I think right now our democracy is under attack. And right now the best way to protect our democracy is to make voting easy and keep counting simple." He went on to say that proponents of RCV had made the case during the 2020 delegate selection review process that RCV was akin to the assembled caucuses made famous in Iowa. Those are the caucuses where voters assemble in preference groups, and those candidate groups who do not make the viability threshold (15 percent) can (physically) move over to another group that did initially qualify in a second round. But, as Leone noted, the party has moved away from caucuses in recent years. To endorse -- directly or indirectly -- RCV would be to walk back that development to some degree.

What Leone's and the additional agnostic viewpoint indicate is something that often gets highlighted in these rules discussions. They often have to maintain a delicate balance between an array of competing interests. And on the issue of RCV what emerged from the DNCRBC meeting in August was a panel that was balancing a potential need to add guardrails around RCV's usage in the 2024 presidential nomination process against an apparent desire to not simultaneously (and indirectly) endorse the reform.

While the efforts to institute RCV on the state level may be driven by Democratic legislators, that may be reflective not of where the whole party is -- or even where the national party is -- but rather where some legislators who happen to be Democratic are on the issue. For its part, the DNC did not weigh in on RCV, not in the rules in any event. But the DNCRBC did leave itself room to provide guidance to state parties outside of the rules -- in its regulations (or how it interprets the application of the rules). State parties will have access to that when finalizing their various delegate selection plans, but without any tacit support for or opposition to RCV. 

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