The Democratic Party Needs to Adopt Ranked-Choice Voting in its Primary

Kai McKinnon
7 min readMar 17, 2019

The Democratic Party is too powerful. In the last century it has always selected one of the two candidates voters can choose for president. However, voters don’t directly elect the Democratic nominee. They vote for one of 3,768 delegates who, at the Democratic National Convention, cast a vote alongside another 764 superdelegates — Democratic Party insiders such as activists and officials (some elected) who are free to support whichever candidate they like.

This primary system would be fairer if there were many competing parties. However, since there are — and will likely only ever betwo parties under our current rules, by design our system gives an outsized share of power to party insiders.

The government doesn’t run primaries. These are up to the parties, and they have complete discretion in how they choose their nominee.

House Democrats recently passed H.R.1, which would be the most ambitious ‘small-d’ democratic voting rights legislation to pass Congress since perhaps the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They should live these values in their primary process.

The reform package passed by DNC Chairman Tom Perez in response to the 2016 Democratic presidential primary was a move in the right direction. It prevents superdelegates from casting their overpowered votes unless the nominee is already decided or there’s a brokered convention (a deadlock where no one has enough delegates to be the clear winner), something that hasn’t come close to happening since the 80s. This will hopefully allow voters in states that vote later in the primary to not bias their votes towards candidates that are frontrunners in part because of their superdelegates — a phenomenon many Bernie Sanders supporters felt acutely in 2016.

However, there’s more the Democratic Party should do to empower its voters. It can allow them to specify how strongly they support various candidates with ranked-choice voting. From Ballotpedia:

A ranked-choice voting system (RCV) is an electoral system in which voters rank candidates by preference on their ballots. If a candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, he or she is declared the winner. If no candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated. First-preference votes cast for the failed candidate are eliminated, lifting the second-preference choices indicated on those ballots. A new tally is conducted to determine whether any candidate has won a majority of the adjusted votes. The process is repeated until a candidate wins an outright majority. This system is sometimes referred to as an instant runoff voting system.

In a nutshell, RCV is a system where you can choose multiple candidates and rank them based on which ones you like more. What’s more, the Democratic Party needs something like RCV to understand the trends and interests of its voters beyond just who won or lost the nomination and with what share of the electorate.

This is the first Democratic primary where I’m torn between many candidates who I really want to vote for. I can easily find reasons to support Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Corey Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, or Beto O’Rourke. And, if this were a normal-sized Democratic field, I’d also be giving looks to Julian Castro, Andrew Yang, and Jay Inslee.

They’re all running on policies I support with positive messages I can get behind. In a race where I have no idea who can for sure beat Donald Trump or what might happen in the general election, I don’t want to base my vote on who gives me the warm fuzzies. Instead, I want to look at their policies, their priorities, and their plans for getting stuff done.

When Pete Buttigieg says his number one priority is structural change like reforming the Supreme Court, abolishing the electoral college, and passing a swath of policies the likes of H.R.1, I vote on that. When Elizabeth Warren rolls out policy proposals outlining her highest priority as reforming our financial institutions to address the excesses of capitalism and tamp down on corruption, I vote on that. When Kamala Harris announces that her LIFT the Middle Class Act tax cut would be her first major policy initiative, I vote on that. When Bernie Sanders says his priority as president would be Medicare for All, I vote on that. When Corey Booker campaigns on baby bonds, his plan to attack income inequality by creating a savings account for low-income Americans, I vote on that. When Jay Inslee says tackling climate change would be his number one priority as president, I vote on that.

And when each of them answers the question of how they would actually deliver on these aspirational initiates if they were to become president in a divided congress, I listen when they say they’ll try to work across the aisle or consider advocating the removal of the senate filibuster requiring 60 votes for major legislation. And I vote on that.

I’m not alone. Millions of Democrats will vote this same way or, whatever their criteria may be, at least be torn between multiple candidates. However, the Democratic Party will never see this nuance in its voters in a quantitative way without RCV.

There’s been never-ending pontification on why Sanders outperformed expectations in the 2016 Democratic primary. Were his ideas really just that popular with younger voters? Did voters find him to be authentic? Were many just fed-up with Hillary Clinton and didn’t want her to be the nominee? Did they just want to send a message? If we’d had RCV in the 2016 Democratic primary, we’d be much closer to answering these questions because we could see who people put as their first, second, and third choices. We could also notably see who they did not put.

What’s more, ranked-choice voting encourages majority support, discourages negative campaigning, provides more choice to voters, minimizes strategic voting, and stimulates a wider, more diverse field of candidates.

If this all sounds too good to be true then you’re starting to understand. Ranked-choice voting is just that good.

However, it does come with two notable downsides. First, transitioning to a RCV system would be expensive and non-trivial since the Democratic Party has always had first-past-the-post voting to elect its delegates. Second, RCV is more complex than our current system. Voters would have to understand the new system, and we should always endeavor to make voting easier, not harder. Still, many countries and even some states and cities have adopted RCV successfully.

The downsides are well worth it. Otherwise, and for the first time, this primary cycle Democrats run the risk of sending a nominee to the general election who only garnered 15% of the votes in its primary. Such a small plurality would give the nominee a weak mandate and possibly set them up for a worst-case repeat of 2016 wherein Hillary Clinton’s support among Democrats who did not vote for her in the primary (45% of Democrats) tanked when it came time for them to turn out for her in the general election.

How? If Bernie Sanders only gets 15% of the vote in the 2020 Democratic primary but everyone else gets at most 10% each then right now Bernie Sanders wins. This may seem fair at a glance, but then you realize Sanders would receive the nomination when 85% of Democrats did not vote for him. Side note — Donald Trump won less than 45% of the popular vote in the 2016 Republican Primary, so he did proceed to the general election when even most Republican voters hadn’t voted for him. You know what that means.

The Republican Party should also use ranked-choice voting in its primaries!

Rather, Republicans and Democrats should use RCV in both their primaries if they want to only choose a nominee who has majority support from their party — even if that nominee was the second or third choice of some voters. In a RCV system, if Sanders received 15% of all the first-choice votes and only 20% of all the second-choice votes but Elizabeth Warren received 10% of all the first-choice votes and 60% of all the second-choice votes then Warren would get the nomination over Sanders because 70% of Democratic voters (a majority) supported her after two rounds of voting when only 35% of them supported Sanders.

Did you follow that? Basically it means ranked-choice voting favors the candidate most voters like whereas our current system favors the candidate voters like most. In other words, RCV tends to result in consensus candidates instead of divisive ones, and the people it elects go on to govern with a stronger, broader mandate from the electorate. RCV allows more people to vote for the eventual nominee, and this increases their chances of winning in the general because more people would see their choice at the ballot box.

Ultimately the choice of whether the Democratic Party should adopt RCV turns on whether Democrats are willing to walk the walk when it comes to having a fair and equitable process for their voters to choose their nominee for president.



Kai McKinnon

Software Engineer and aspiring fantasy writer living in Brooklyn