Editorial: Ranked-choice voting could make primaries less like free-for-alls

Editorial: Ranked-choice voting could make primaries less like free-for-alls

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Democratic primary in South Carolina

Candidates participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate Charleston, S.C., on Feb. 25.

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The whiplash that Democratic primary voters experienced this campaign season is unhelpful for both the party and democracy. The perceived leader swung wildly from primary to primary, with each outcome displeasing the majority of voters who didn’t support the winner. The field does eventually winnow down, as seen in the exits of every major contender, leaving only former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders in the race. But an outcome in which the eventual nominee is someone the majority of Democrats didn’t necessarily want remains real.

It’s an almost-inevitable side effect of any election with multiple candidates — but one that could be smoothed out with one change: ranked-choice voting, which would let voters choose not only their first choice but also their second, third and beyond. The votes are counted in rounds, with the lowest vote-getter eliminated in each round and the votes of that candidate assigned to his or her supporters’ second choices. That process continues until someone has a majority.

Some local jurisdictions, including the Ferguson-Florissant school district, have switched to such a system. Some states are using it in their presidential primaries this year. It’s worth consideration by Missouri and other states, with an eye toward making it the national standard. The system could better represent the will of the voters. The traditional primary system, after all, is what allowed Donald Trump to win the GOP nomination with 13 million votes even though 16 million Republicans voted against him.

In the Feb. 29 South Carolina Democratic primary, Biden won with a plurality, but no one got a majority. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar was the last-place finisher among the top tier. Had ranked-choice voting been in place, Klobuchar would have been eliminated in the first round of counting, with her votes assigned in the second round of counting to the candidate listed as each voter’s second choice. Assuming that many of Klobuchar’s voters would have ranked Biden second (they’re in the same “moderate” lane), it could well have put him over the 50% mark that would demonstrate true majority affirmation.

Such a system helps the winner legitimately claim support of the majority of voters, even if he or she wasn’t necessarily the first choice of all of them. It gives individual voters more of a stake in the race, knowing that even if their preferred candidate is knocked out, they still have a voice in what happens next. And it can mitigate the rise of an extremist candidate whose victory only occurs because multiple moderates split the centrist vote.

Today’s primaries too often resemble a widespread brawl in which many fighters claw their way over each other to get to the top, leaving most voters unhappy with the outcome. Ranked-choice voting seems like a better way.

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