Monday, January 30, 2023

Ranked Choice Voting in 2024 Presidential Primaries, Part One

One electoral reform that FHQ has touched on in the past and has increasingly popped up on the presidential primary radar is ranked choice voting (RCV). And let us be clear, while the idea has worked its way into state-level legislation and state party delegate selection plans, widespread adoption of the practice is not yet at hand. 

However, there has been RCV experimentation on a modest scale in the delegate allocation process primarily in small states. And that has opened the door to its consideration on a broader scale elsewhere. States, whether state parties or state legislators, are seeing some value in allowing for a redistribution of votes based on a voter's preferences to insure, in the case of presidential primaries, that every voter has a more direct say in the resulting delegate allocation. 

That is apparent in legislation that has been proposed in state legislatures across the country as they have begun convening their 2023 sessions. Again, RCV is not sweeping the nation, as the map below of current legislation to institute the method in the presidential nomination process will attest. There are a lot of unshaded states. But if RCV was adopted across those states where it has been passed (Maine), where it has been used in Democratic state party-run processes (Alaska, Kansas and North Dakota), and where it is being considered by legislators in 2023 then it would affect the allocation of nearly a quarter of Democratic delegates and a sixth of Republican delegates. That is not nothing. 

Granted, just because a bill has been introduced does not mean that it will pass. If one has followed FHQ (or the legislative process anywhere) for a while, then this observation should not come as a surprise. Bills to shift the dates on which presidential primaries occur are frequently introduced, but often fail. Take Virginia and ranked choice voting as an example. Of the four RCV bills filed in the Old Dominion, half of them have already been effectively killed in committee. Now, one of the remaining two could still become law, but the odds, given the failures to this point, do not necessarily portend success.

So, if none -- or, at best, very few -- of these bills become law, then why does any of this bear watching, especially at a site that tracks changes to the presidential primary calendar and delegate selection process? 

The answer lies in the impact RCV could have on the delegate allocation process. Like most things with delegate allocation, changes are likely only to matter at the margins. But in a close nomination race, those margins can matter. 

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. 

Yes, that is a tremendous exaggeration, but one intended to highlight the ways in which RCV can matter in the allocation process, whether rejiggering the order of finish or, probably more realistically, padding the stats of a would-be winner under the regular rules.  But that is why this is important.

Of course, that functional view of the effects of RCV omits some of the more political components of RCV in view of the reality on the state level. Most of the push for RCV has a particular partisan flavor to it. Legislation is being offered primarily by Democrats in mostly Democratic-controlled states. Two-thirds of the 21 currently active RCV bills have Democratic sponsors. Thirteen of those 21 bills have been introduced in states with unified Democratic control.

Republicans, on the other hand, have been less inclined to support RCV. There are a couple of Virginia bills that have Republican sponsors and a smattering of bipartisan efforts across the country as well. But that support has been limited, and Republicans have been far more successful in promoting bans on the use of RCV. Both Florida and Tennessee have prohibitions on the practice and South Dakota is considering legislation to go down a similar path. 

But while that partisan difference exists, any bills enacted would impact votes in state government-run primary elections, regardless of party. Neither national party has weighed in on RCV -- not in terms of rule making for or against the method -- and any ban instituted would not affect the way the allocation process has traditionally worked. Yet, laws like the RCV law in Maine affect both Democratic and Republican primaries that are funded and run by the state. RCV bills enacted in blue states will affect the Republican nomination process as well (if there is no state party discretion to opt out). That bears watching not just in Maine, but in Democratic-controlled states as well.

Most of the legislation is to establish RCV, and while some of those bills may be successful, most will likely fail. But that points toward a potentially expanded -- although perhaps only incrementally -- use of and experimentation with RCV during the 2024 cycle. 

A few notes on bills included and excluded from consideration:

1. The intent was to highlight legislation that would affect presidential primaries. That includes bills that would exclusively cover presidential primaries and those that would impact all or most primaries, including presidential primaries. 

2. FHQ was probably a bit more inclusive than necessary. A handful of the bills listed above while currently active, would not take effect until after 2024. The New York and Oregon legislation is that way. The 2022 New Jersey RCV bill that carried over to the second session in 2023 would not take effect until the January 1 twelve months following the point at which the secretary of state in the Garden state had determined all voting machines were operable for RCV. New Jersey and New York together account for a significant chunk of delegates on the Democratic side and none of those would be impacted by this legislation in 2024.

3. Some bills were not included. There is an RCV ban bill in North Dakota as well. But there is no state-run presidential primary in the Peace Garden state. Similarly, ban legislation that sought to prohibit RCV only in local elections -- as in Minnesota -- were also excluded. Finally, if RCV was tethered to a broader push to move to a nonpartisan primary like in New Mexico, then that was also left out. It should also be noted that Nevada was left unshaded on the map above. The state Democratic Party used RCV in the early voting portion of the caucuses in 2020, but not across the entire process.

4. Hawaii technically fits two categories on the map. Democrats in the Aloha state used RCV in their party-run primary in 2020, but have legislation that combines a switch to RCV and the use of a state-run presidential primary as well as separate legislation to establish a presidential primary and move to RCV in all elections (including any presidential primary that may be created).

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