Regardless of who wins in November, the 2018 House elections are already making history. The House primaries, which started on March 5 in Texas and will continue into September, rank as the most crowded ever. Already, more than 2,300 Republican and Democratic candidates are vying for office, nearly 50 percent more than the next highest year, the “Tea Party” election of 2010.
In part, this candidate surge is a sign of the resiliency of our democracy, of the upwelling of participation our system needs. But there’s a catch. The vast majority of these primaries will take place in states with single-round simple plurality voting, in which the candidate with the most votes wins, regardless of whether that candidate has majority support. Simple plurality works well enough when few candidates are running, but in crowded races it can easily result in winners with low percentages of the vote, who may not be preferred by, or even be in step with, the majority.
This year at least 146 U.S. House primaries will have five or more candidates, more than double the total for any recent election; 212 will have four or more. Already seven congressional primaries were won in Illinois without a majority, including one with just 29 percent.
The country’s primary system already intensifies polarization because primary voters tend to be few in number (often less than 15 percent of registered voters) and more fiercely partisan than the voting population as a whole. This year’s primaries will intensify that dynamic, as the crowded fields cause vote splitting among mainstream candidates, clearing the way for candidates backed by only a fraction of the electorate to move forward to the general election.
Low plurality winners can cost their party otherwise winnable seats, a dynamic that could hurt Democratic party prospects for winning the House. In strongly blue or red districts, these candidates will likely make it through to Congress, where there’s a good chance they’ll support more ideologically extreme positions.
Ironically, the great surge of candidates running this year stems in part from individuals wanting to improve our democracy. But more participation is not the answer by itself to the problems we face. We also need to change our rules.
The good news is that the 2018 primaries will also showcase a rule change that addresses the crowded election problem without the cost and decline in turnout associated with election runoffs. That change, called ranked choice voting (RCV), will be used in the primaries in Maine this summer.
With RCV, voters mark a ballot designed to show first, second, and third choices (or more). The ballots are then counted in rounds (called “instant runoff”) in which the least-supported candidate is eliminated at each round. By taking into account multiple preferences, ranked choice ensures, in nearly all cases, that the winner is voted for by the majority and is the most preferred candidate.
In Maine, decades of races won by candidates without a majority, most significantly at the Governor level, led voters to back a 2016 ballot initiative for the greater choice and majority rule provided by RCV. With seven Democrats and four Republicans running for governor, and four Democrats running in Maine’s second congressional district, RCV will have an immediate impact.
The ranked choice mechanism shifts election results to the center of the electorate and to more representative nominees. Because candidates need to heed a larger electorate beyond their core supporters, RCV also makes campaigning less negative and promotes more collaborative approaches and candidates.
RCV is used in a half-dozen countries around the world and in 12 cities around the country. Evaluations show that voters prefer it to simple plurality. The additional complexity of RCV ballots has not reduced turnout as some had feared. Instead, recent RCV elections in Minneapolis, Santa Fe and St. Paul resulted in the highest mayoral turnouts in more than a decade. RCV ballots can pose administrative challenges, but with new equipment and insight about good procedures, these challenges have been overcome. In Santa Fe’s five-candidate mayoral race, for example, 99.9 percent of voters cast a valid ballot, and the ranked choice results were announced on election night.
Ranked choice voting also facilitates competition from independent and third party candidates because it significantly reduces the risk that voting for such candidates could help an ideological opponent.
Simple plurality is the norm in this country not because it’s in the Constitution (which leaves these issues to the states) or endorsed by the Founders; it’s simply all that the available technology could manage when we started voting back in the 1600s. Countries coming later to democracy have leap-frogged this system with newer innovations that use the moment of voting to learn more about what people want, exactly as ranked choice does.
To date, learning more about what voters want has appealed more to good-governance groups, third parties, and independents than to our dominant political parties, who have perceived RCV as a threat. But that configuration of interests could be changing. The historic level of candidates this year reflects the takeover by the grassroots of traditional political organizing, a development that deeply undermines the parties’ role and even their reason for being. The solution is not reasserting central control of the candidate nomination process, it’s using the mechanism of ranked choice voting to translate this new, many-faceted participation into results that represent the majority.
Kevin Johnson is executive director of Election Reformers Network, a nonprofit created by international democracy workers supporting reform in the U.S.
Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote (www.fairvote.org), a nonprofit electoral reform organization.