Replace our ‘minority rules’ presidential primary system with ranked-choice voting 

Kent Thiry
Kent Thiry

Kent J Thiry is an Entrepreneur, Philanthropist, and Civic Leader.

As the country turns its focus to the next presidential election, there is a real possibility that 2024 could offer voters the choice of an historically unpopular incumbent vs. an historically corrupt and twice-indicted opponent.

That shouldn’t inspire confidence in our political system – and it doesn’t have to be that way.

Our antiquated presidential primaries are disproportionately driven by the far left and far right. In fact, if any group gathered to design a primary system from a blank page, and someone proposed the current approach, they would be laughed out of the room.

But the parties like the current system, as it maximizes their power, at the expense of the people’s power.

Is that an overly dramatic assertion? Not a bit. In fact, Unite America, a group I work with, has pointed out that only 8% of American voters determined 83% of congressional seats in the recent midterms. The three reasons are basic and fixable – gerrymandering, closed primaries, and partisan primaries with first-past-the-post winners (meaning the candidate with the most votes wins, even if it is far short of a majority).

Under the existing rules — where voters select one candidate among a field of many, and where candidates “win” even when a majority of voters support someone (anyone) else — the more candidates who enter the race (there are at least a dozen as of this writing), the more likely it is that Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee.

For those of us who value democracy and the rule of law over the whims of a vocal minority, that is frightening.

In 2016, Trump effectively “lost” each of the first 22 Republican state primary elections as majorities cast their ballots in support of other candidates. But, given the size of the field and arcane delegate apportionment rules, he won the nomination regardless.

But the current system is not simply a problem for Republicans. The same argument could be made where an incumbent like Biden, who is viewed unfavorably by a majority of voters (or a far-left candidate like Bernie Sanders who is out-of-step with the majority) “wins” a contest where at least 3 candidates compete – but none gets the majority.

Making matters worse, many primary votes are wasted — nearly 3.5 million in the 2020 presidential primary — on candidates who drop out.

Should members of our military or other overseas voters whose ballots take weeks to arrive lose their votes if their favored candidate drops out before votes are counted? Should we ignore that they might have a second or third choice?

Absolutely not.

Ranked-choice voting can help right those and other wrongs. ‘

Sometimes called “instant-runoff” voting, it puts the power in the hands of voters — amplifying their voices by allowing them to express support for multiple candidates. It also minimizes the “spoiler” gamesmanship of candidates running simply to pull votes away from others, or from candidates pulling out of a race and throwing their support behind another candidate (particularly when that candidate may not have been a voter’s second choice).

The premise is straightforward: Allow voters to rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate reaches a simple majority on the first ballot, a candidate with majority support emerges on subsequent ballots.

Maine and Alaska have already implemented ranked-choice voting. Nevada voters this year supported a constitutional amendment to use it in general elections. And Oregon voters next year will be asked to approve the system for all state and federal contests.

We know from recent elections – whether it was Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska or Mayor Eric Adams in New York City – that voters quickly adapt to and support ranked-choice voting.

It is a system that can give the middle of America’s politics their voice and choice back. That is not a small feat.

The good news is that voters are not nearly as polarized as our legislatures. In fact, most pundits have the causality exactly wrong: It is not a polarized electorate driving legislatures to the same spot; rather, polarized legislatures are driving the population into that corner.

State lawmakers and all of those who care about the future of this great country must work to support and institute ranked-choice voting for, at a minimum, primary elections — starting with the 2024 presidential primary. This system does not benefit one party over another. It benefits the candidates who appeal to the largest group of voters — and therefore benefits our democracy at a time when it’s needed most.

Our democracy is fragile, and worth protecting. We can — and should — do it with our votes, bringing us even closer to the vision President Abe Lincoln set forth in his Gettysburg Address of a government “of, by and for the people.”