The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Let’s fix our flawed primary system with ranked-choice voting

A voter casts her ballot during Virginia's primary election in March 2016 at the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Leesburg. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

Neither political party will hold an in-person convention this year, the first time that has happened for Democrats since 1832 and for Republicans since 1856. This is likely for the best, as the rise of party primaries has made conventions merely a four-day long infomercial. It’s also an opportunity to think the once unthinkable: replace conventions with a fairer primary process that includes ranked-choice voting.

Conventions once served a genuine purpose. State parties would send delegates to the events to select their nominee, ensuring that the nominee had some sort of democratic mandate and also that those officials who were closest to the voters chose the party’s face. These men — and they were all men in those days — would be the savviest judges on which candidate would be victorious.

The convention system began to wane in importance as states moved to primaries to select delegates and as television allowed candidates to speak directly to voters. The shocking Democratic Party primaries of 1968, which saw Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy use these tools to force President Lyndon B. Johnson from the race — only to be denied the nomination by party bosses at the convention — forced Democrats to empower the McGovern-Fraser Commission. That commission sidelined the bosses and made primaries the major force in selecting a nominee, a reform that allowed two little-known figures — George McGovern and Jimmy Carter — to become the party’s nominees in the next two elections.

Republicans largely followed suit after boss-led delegations from New York and Pennsylvania denied Ronald Reagan the nomination in 1976. No convention floor vote has mattered since then, and news organizations have replaced their once gavel-to-gavel coverage with more limited coverage.

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Since then, insiders have used the convention system to regain control over the nomination process. Because primaries elect delegates to a meaningless convention, party elites use rules and scheduling to make it almost impossible for a genuine outsider to capture the nomination. No largely unknown figure has done so since Carter’s upset in 1976. A dark horse almost always emerges — former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg was this year’s surprise — only to be swamped on a multistate primary Election Day that is beyond their financial capacity to compete in. This makes the modern convention-delegate system a charade, offering the fiction of competitiveness followed by the facade of deliberation.

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A new approach based on ranked-choice voting would end the insider’s cozy arrangement. Instead of six months of primaries that award phony delegates to a Potemkin village convention, this system would award a party’s nomination to the person who wins a national popular vote. The vote would be conducted in two stages. Stage one would be a four-state first primary where one state from each region — probably Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — would hold a primary on the same day. Stage two would occur two or three months later, when all other states would hold a primary on the same day. The winner would be the person who gets the most votes in both stages combined.

This system can work only if all states employ ranked-choice voting. This method, which is used by Maine and some Democratic caucus states, gives voters a chance to rank their choices among as many of the contenders as they want. Voters’ first choices are tabulated, and then the candidate on the bottom is eliminated, reallocating their votes to their voters’ second choices. This repeats until one person has a majority of the votes. The nominee would be the person with the most votes after all states and territories have gone through this process.

Such an approach would give lesser-known candidates a real shot at winning and ultimately nominate the candidate with the broadest popular appeal. The first stage would give candidates a chance to emerge as a national figure, and the two- to three-month break would give them a chance to raise the money to effectively compete. Ranked-choice voting would also empower genuine voter choice as lesser-funded candidates could stay in the race while voters use their subsequent preferences to choose between the finalists. The money that parties use to finance their schmoozefests could instead be given to state election agencies to fund the primary season.

Republicans would likely have used this system to deny Donald Trump the nomination in 2016. Anti-Trump voters split their votes among a plethora of candidates in the early races, allowing Trump to win majorities of delegates with minorities of the vote. The South Carolina primary was a supreme example of this, as he won all 50 delegates even though he only received 32 percent of the vote. Had GOP voters been able to rank their choices, it’s likely that either Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) or Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) would have picked up more second- and third-choice votes to surpass Trump, denying him the momentum that allowed him to sweep others away.

This method would have likely changed this year’s Democratic outcome, too. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would not have become the prohibitive favorite early on simply because his minority faction looked like it was going to capture a majority of delegates. A ranked-choice primary system would also not have forced Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar to drop out on the eve of Super Tuesday as the frightened establishment was forced to consolidate behind former vice president Joe Biden. We would instead have had a genuine contest wherein the majority of Democratic voters, not insider shenanigans, would have produced the nominee.

The convention-delegate system has become a flawed method that yields weak nominees. It’s time to replace it with a democratic system that works.

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David Byler: The Republican convention will help Trump. But it won’t save his campaign.

Henry Olsen: Good on Trump for canceling his convention. Now it’s time for the hard part.