In the summer, the Republican Party may host a “contested convention” for the first time in 40 years. To win the presidential nomination, a candidate must win the votes of a majority of the convention’s 2,472 delegates. Donald Trump, the only candidate with a plausible path toward securing this majority, is currently projected to fall short.
Trump will undoubtedly assert that his delegate plurality ought to earn him the nomination. In fact, he claimed in March that riots might ensue if he were denied the nomination. Trump’s opponents are undeterred, needless to say.
Ultimately, the party’s Convention Rules Committee must choose a voting process that the party will use to settle these impending disputes. They should consider a voting procedure that will both minimize conflict and produce a fair outcome: instant-runoff voting (IRV).
What is instant-runoff voting?
Under the party’s current rules, most delegates remain “pledged” to vote for one specified candidate in accordance with the outcomes of their states’ primaries and caucuses. If no candidate receives a majority, subsequent rounds of balloting follow, with many delegates free to switch their vote.
In previous eras, prominent power brokers were able to steer this process. Today, these leaders don’t command their state delegations as they once did. The delegates themselves face varying constraints on how they can vote and when they can defect from the candidate to whom they have pledged. Moreover, the Convention Rules Committee members will need to update some outdated rules if they wish to facilitate a truly open convention.
In short, the process as it currently stands offers no clear safeguard against widespread confusion and turmoil, and only an arcane and disparate set of guidelines exists to shepherd the process along.
Instant-runoff voting, however, could radically simplify the convention’s balloting process, and it provides the best path toward fulfilling the party’s long-standing requirement that its presidential candidate receive a majority vote among the delegates.
Under this method, also known as “ranked-choice voting,” delegates would rank their candidates in order of preference. If no candidate attains a majority, the candidate receiving the fewest first-place votes is eliminated, and the disqualified candidate’s voters reallocate their votes to their second choice. This process repeats until one candidate reaches a majority. (For a concise visual explanation of the ranked-choice method, see this video.)
For example, assume that four candidates head to the convention with pledged delegates: Trump, Cruz, Kasich and Rubio. (Rubio has stated that he will not release his delegates prior to the convention. Nearly 200 other delegates will head to the convention unpledged to any particular candidate.) Assume that no candidate wins a majority on the first ballot.
In an open convention, many of the delegates would then be free to vote for another choice regardless of the outcome of the first ballot. Depending on how the rules are written prior to the convention, delegates could even opt for a candidate who did not arrive at the convention with any pledged delegates — say, Paul Ryan. A clear Trump plurality could be rendered meaningless when the delegates vote a second time.
By using IRV, by contrast, the second ballot would involve only the delegates pledged to the last-place finisher on the first ballot. For example, delegates pledged to, say, Rubio would then be assigned to their second choice. After this reallocation of delegates, Trump may reach a majority or perhaps Cruz and Kasich will gain on Trump. Importantly, none of the remaining candidates loses votes.
If no candidate has attained a majority after the second ballot, the new last-place finisher is again eliminated, and his delegates’ second-choice preferences would be reallocated. Repeat until a majority winner emerges.
What does IRV offer the GOP?
The primary benefit of this method is that it obliges the party to determine its nominee through an expedient, fair, and transparent process, replacing the possibility of convention floor chicanery. Whereas a truly open convention could lead to an arduous, multi-day process, IRV would allow Republicans to proceed to their routine convention activities soon after delegates submit their ballots.
Moreover, under IRV, the outcome would be reasonably faithful to the preferences of primary voters. A candidate who arrives at the convention with something close to a majority — namely, Trump — could remain competitive through multiple “rounds” of balloting. His delegates could not defect to other candidates after the first ballot.
At the same time, if an enthusiastic minority within the party supports Trump while a majority finds him unacceptable, IRV will ultimately deny him the nomination.
Candidates who arrive at the convention with relatively few pledged delegates would stand little chance to win — nor should they, at least according to the primary electorates that failed to award them many delegates in the first place. Overwhelmingly, Republican voters agree that the process should work to the advantage of the plurality winner.
What doesn’t IRV offer the GOP?
To be sure, not all of the Republican Party’s problems can be solved by making the voting rules more fair and expedient. If Republicans’ principal objective is to nominate the party’s most electable candidate, IRV may not provide the best procedure to do so. In fact, it could prove counterproductive from this perspective.
For example, IRV would place Team #NeverTrump at a disadvantage. The emerging wisdom suggests that, because candidates often do not select their own delegates, many of Trump’s pledged delegates will not be Trump loyalists. Thus, many of his pledged delegates may vote for another candidate at their earliest opportunity. IRV would not allow them to do so. Trump would retain all of his delegates until the final round of voting, assuming he enters the convention with his expected near-majority.
IRV may also foreclose the possibility of someone like Ryan receiving the nomination. Assuming Ryan receives no (or few) votes on the first ballot, his presence as a second choice — even if a widely shared second choice — becomes moot. Whereas Ryan might fare better in consensus-seeking voting procedures, such as the Borda count, he could not emerge as the majority candidate under the most standard rules of IRV.
Yet these perceived drawbacks could also be seen as a safeguard against a cabal of Republican delegates and rule-makers sabotaging the will of the broader Republican electorate. In other words, IRV ensures that if Team #NeverTrump wants to defeat their nemesis, then they will have to do so in the most fair, transparent and democratic manner possible.
Matthew Dean Hindman is assistant professor of political science at the University of Tulsa.