Editor’s Note: David Daley is the author of “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and a senior fellow at FairVote, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for electoral reform in the United States. Joshua A. Douglas is a law professor at the University of Kentucky and the author of “Vote for US: How to Take Back Our Elections and Change the Future of Voting.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors; view more opinion articles on CNN.
The Democratic Party faces a problem: 24 candidates are vying for the presidency and it needs to winnow the field to one nominee by next summer.
The Democratic National Committee has one idea: force as many candidates to drop out of the race as soon as possible, using metrics such as the number of donations received or the candidate’s support in polls this summer to limit who can participate in the debates.
But that’s simply anti-democratic because it takes the choice away from actual voters themselves.
Instead, states should adopt ranked-choice voting for the presidential primaries, where voters can list multiple candidates in order of preference and the counting system can take these preferences into account. Voters could list their first, second, and third choices among all of the candidates, with the ability to rank as many or as few as they’d like. If no candidate receives 50% of first choice votes, then the last place candidate is eliminated, and voters who put that person first have their second choice count instead. The process repeats itself until a candidate has a majority.
Using ranked-choice voting for the 2020 primaries would allow the Democratic Party to nominate someone who is a true consensus, as opposed to a winner receiving votes from only a small fraction of voters.
Twenty of the 24 candidates who amass at least 65,000 individual donations or earn 1% in three polls will participate in the initial two debates in late June, evenly divided over two nights. Four candidates will be shut out for missing these thresholds or, if all hit one of those numbers, losing on various tiebreakers.
Yet the DNC’s newly released rules for the third debate in the fall take the goal of early winnowing a dangerous step further.
To make that fall debate, candidates must garner at least 2% support in four major summer polls and secure contributions from at least 130,000 individual contributors. That not only doubles the requirements from the June debates, but it also demands that candidates demonstrate both polling and fundraising prowess, rather than meeting just one of the standards.
That hurdle might not seem steep at first glance, but according to a Five Thirty Eight analysis, only eight candidates – Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren – have registered at above 2 percent in three qualifying polls so far. Being cut out of the September debate – a likely consequence for most other candidates – would amount to a political death knell. The Democratic Party has seemed to favor culling the field over all other goals without considering an alternative voting structure, like ranked-choice voting.
There’s a better way to do this, and it doesn’t require all but eliminating two-thirds of the candidates this fall. If Democrats simply adopted ranked-choice voting in state primaries and caucuses across the country, there would be no need to artificially weed out candidates this early. A wide field of thoughtful candidates could have several opportunities to make their case to the nation, at a time when more voters have tuned in. Everyone could cast a ballot for the candidates they like best without summer 2019 polls limiting their choices.
Yes, many Democratic candidates would stay in the race longer. But voters would decide who moves forward, after having a reasonable chance to hear from everyone. Votes for less popular candidates would not be wasted because the ranking system could take them into account. More importantly, voters themselves would decide who stays in the primary, not early donors or the results of polls that seem to often reflect little more than who has the most name recognition in the current news cycle.
The DNC’s new requirements could bring certain doom to US House members such as Seth Moulton, Eric Swalwell, and Tim Ryan, who will have to catch fire soon if they want a September podium. But the new thresholds could also bring trouble for many better-known Democrats.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, for example, has met the early 1% polling threshold, but not the 65,000 donor requirement. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, former Housing Secretary Julian Castro, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee have more than 65,000 donors, but would need to nearly double that number over the summer if they want to be included in the September debate.
The new rule therefore threatens to shut out some of the candidates who have helped to make the 2020 Democratic presidential field the most gender and racially diverse we have ever seen. It could also bulldoze candidates from geographically diverse places, like Hickenlooper and Sen. Michael Bennet from Colorado, Washington State’s Inslee, and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. And, as a result, it could limit the discussion of important issues like climate change, gender equity, and veterans and mental health that candidates like New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Gov. Inslee, and Rep. Moulton have highlighted in their campaigns.
Early next year, voters will cast the first ballots of the 2020 presidential election in Iowa and New Hampshire. Shouldn’t the voters themselves decide who are the most viable candidates? The solution to the large Democratic field – ranked-choice voting – would be easy to apply, and the DNC could still winnow the field within a reasonable time frame. Indeed, Hawaii and Alaska have already adopted RCV for all voters. In May, Kansas Democrats announced their intention to replace the state’s caucus with a ranked-choice primary. Democrats require early voting to be available in all caucus states, and Nevada and Iowa have announced their intention to use RCV for their early ballots.
The presidential nomination process is about more than simply selecting a standard bearer. It’s about a full airing of issues and opinions that allow voters to cast the most-informed vote they possibly can, and for a party to come together around a platform and its ideas. Indeed, this is not a partisan solution: Republicans, too, should adopt RCV, especially if multiple candidates enter the race.
Get our free weekly newsletter
The electoral process that a party uses can make a difference. Democrats can stay the course and let donors and polls decide who speaks – and force candidates into the desperate spectacle of social media ads soliciting $1 contributions. Or they could do something truly transformative and give voters more power with RCV.
There’s still time in many states to adopt RCV ahead of the 2020 primaries. Party leaders should not ignore this common sense solution to its crowded primary.