• A drawing of a hand marking 1st, 2nd, and 3rd choices

      Hand Marking Ranked Ballot (Photo – Peter J. Yost)

      For the first time, most Californians got up to 11 days to vote at the polls in the March 2020 primaries.

      By Sean McMorris

      Californians have also had the option to vote by mail since 1962 and have been registering to permanently vote-by-mail since 2002. Vote-By-Mail (VBM) ballots are sent to California voters 29 days before statewide elections, allowing voters the option to hold on to them until election day or submit them weeks before an election.

      A lot can happen in a race weeks or even days before an election. The March 2020 Primaries are proof of that. Californians who cast their votes just three days before the March 3 primaries saw three major Democratic presidential candidates drop out of the race within 48 hours of election day. Californians who voted for one of those candidates (Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, or Tom Steyer) essentially wasted their vote. That could have been avoided.

      If California had Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), those votes would not have been wasted. Instead, the votes for candidates who dropped out before election day would have gone to a voter’s second choice candidate, then their third choice candidate if their second choice candidate was eliminated, and so on until their vote goes to a candidate that reaches 15% support in a party presidential primary election or goes to one of the top two candidates in a general election. This process of elimination continues until one candidate wins an outright majority. In this respect, a vote is never wasted, regardless of whether a candidate drops out of a race after you have voted for them or not.

      RCV is especially relevant to California because of early voting, which is meant to encourage participation in the democratic process but can nonetheless result in voter regret if the electoral landscape in a particular race suddenly changes after you cast your ballot. As California attempts to both increase voter turnout and decrease long lines at the polls by allowing VBM weeks in advance and extending the days a resident can vote in person, it is entirely plausible that the lesson California voters came away with from the March 2020 primaries is not to vote early but to hold on to their ballots until election day. If this is the outcome of what is likely an anomaly primary it will hinder the state’s robust electoral reform efforts.

      Currently, only Maine has RCV state-wide, but more than 15 cities across the U.S. have implemented RCV to great success over the last decade, including Berkeley, Oakland, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and St. Louis. Cambridge Massachusetts has used RCV in city elections since 1941. New York City will use RCV in all city primary and special elections beginning in 2021. In 2020, 5 states (Alaska, Nevada, Hawaii, Kansas, Wyoming) will use RCV for presidential nominations in major party caucuses and primaries.

      So what exactly is Ranked Choice Voting? RCV is exactly as it sounds. You rank the candidates in order of choice. If one is eliminated then your vote goes to your next choice until a candidate wins a majority. There are many advantages to RCV. For example, it prevents vote-splitting in races with multiple candidates from one party. It is a time and cost-saving alternative to state and municipal caucuses and primaries. It mitigates the dilution of minority votes by distributing them to their favorite of the top two highest vote-getting candidates. It helps grassroots candidates who often suffer from strategic voting, or the loss of votes due to electorate fear that their vote will be wasted on an unviable candidate. It also encourages civil candidate discourse since candidates are not only vying for base support but also seeking to appeal to supporters of other candidates who could get eliminated in early tabulations.

      To be sure, RCV would take on greater significance in California now that the state holds its presidential primaries in March instead of June, granting Californians more clout in who will be a Party’s presidential nominee. But RCV is primarily appealing for California because of the state’s early voting format.

      The California Secretary of State’s office does not publish the number of VBM voters in California, but historical data shows that since 2008 an average of 3.7 million voters in presidential primaries and 13.8 million voters in presidential general elections cast a ballot by mail in California. Furthermore, more than half of all ballots cast in every state and federal election in California since 2012 were VBM ballots.

      That said, the L.A. Times reported that only about 20% of all mailed ballots had been received by local elections officials the Friday before the 2020 Super Tuesday primaries. This was likely because of the high number of Democratic presidential candidates still vying for the nomination days before Super Tuesday as well as the fluidity of the race (the last debate before the March 3 primaries was Feb. 28 and South Carolina had its primary on Feb. 29).

      If California had RCV, it is very likely that the number of earlier voters — both VBM and at the polls — would have been significantly higher in the days leading up to Super Tuesday, and the people who did vote before March 3rd would not have had voter’s regret knowing that their vote would go to their next favorite candidate if their top choice(s) bowed out or failed to reach the 15% threshold to receive Party delegates. This, in turn, would have decreased lines at the polls in California and the number of people who decided not to vote because of those long lines.

      Research suggests that Ranked Choice Voting is good for democracy. It also works hand in glove with California’s efforts to increase voter participation while minimizing poll wait times and the general chaos that can ensue when over ten million Californians attempt to vote in a short period of time. It’s time for California to seriously consider implementing Ranked Choice Voting.

      A broader version of this article appeared in the L.A. Times.


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