Guest Commentary

Ranked choice voting is a step in the right direction

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The Kansas Democratic Party will be using ranked choice voting for its 2020 presidential primary in May, which is a step in the right direction for democracy in our state. RCV is an electoral system which guarantees majority support for winning candidates and improves the information-gathering function of elections.

Ranked choice voting allows voters to rank their favorite candidates (the number of choices depends on the election). A threshold is set (15% in the case of the 2020 Democratic Primary), and if the voter’s first choice doesn’t meet it, then the vote is automatically applied to the second choice, and so on through a number of rounds until all remaining candidates have at least 15%.

In a race like the 2016 Democratic nomination contest, where nearly all voters supported either eventual nominee Hillary Clinton or Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), RCV would not have made a significant change to the process or outcome. But in an election like the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination contest, where there are currently nearly two-dozen major candidates, RCV can make a big difference and give voters more and more meaningful options.

For example, Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA) is running a single-issue campaign about human-caused climate change. A voter might want to support Inslee to make a statement about their policy priorities, but might worry that they would “throw their vote away” if it turns out most environmentalist voters decide to support more viable candidates like Sanders or fellow Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). A voter could rank Inslee first, and then Sanders or Warren second.

In standard general election races for positions like senator or governor, voters benefit from ranked choice voting because they can register support for their most-favored candidate, while having a kind of insurance policy if it turns out that candidate is finishes third or lower on election day. Citizens and the broader political system also benefit from RCV’s ability to deliver more accurate information about voter opinion.

If Kansas had used ranked choice voting in the 2018 governor election, supporters of Independent Greg Orman could have registered their dissatisfaction with the two-party duopoly that controls Kansas elections, while still working to prevent their least-favored candidate winning. RCV would generate more specific and reliable information about Democrat Laura Kelly’s support relative to Republican Kris Kobach.

We would have a better idea of whether Kansans support Democrat Laura Kelly’s agenda of increased funding for public schools and Medicaid expansion. We could better evaluate the claim of prominent Republicans like Senate President Susan Wagle of Wichita that Kelly’s 48% of first-choice voters is not a mandate, even though she outpolled Republican Kris Kobach by 5%.

The upcoming Wichita mayoral election would also benefit from ranked choice voting. In August voters will have to sort through nine candidates, with limited information about which challengers to Mayor Jeff Longwell are viable. The election is nonpartisan (although some candidates, like Democratic State. Rep. Brandon Whipple, have partisan histories), and independent polling will be either sparse or nonexistent.

Ranked choice voting would help a voter who wants to change the direction of Wichita, but is unsure which challenger to Mayor Longwell is most likely to make the runoff. Such a voter could rank Longwell last, and always have their vote counted for change. Or a different voter could rank Longwell first, and possibly help the Mayor win a second term.

The 2020 Kansas Democratic presidential primary will be a test of the feasibility of ranked choice voting for state and municipal elections, and we argue a demonstration of the system’s benefits for citizens and democracy.

Neal Allen is chair of the Department of Political Science at Wichita State University. Alejandro Arias-Esparza is a senior political science major at WSU, and interned this Spring at the Washington, D.C., office of Fairvote, working to promote ranked choice voting.