My Turn: New Hampshire Dems silencing New Hampshire Dems

  • Lawrence Lessig speaks during a Washington Supreme Court hearing in Olympia, Wash., on Jan. 22 regarding a lawsuit that addresses the constitutional freedom of electors to vote for any candidate for president, not just the nominee of their party. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 2/21/2019 12:10:13 AM

The New Hampshire Legislature, now controlled by the Democratic Party, had an extraordinary opportunity to allow voters in New Hampshire to speak more clearly in the upcoming 2020 presidential primary. Last week, the House Election Law Committee decided to keep the voters quiet.

The issue is how voters will be allowed to express their preferences through their primary vote. The tradition is that voters vote for one candidate and one candidate only. The candidate who wins the most votes is then declared the winner.

But obviously, in a field of a dozen candidates, “the winner” is an ambiguous idea. If one candidate gets 22 percent of the vote, and the rest get less, in what meaningful sense does that candidate represent the will of New Hampshire voters?

More importantly, given the gaggle of candidates we know will run, how do voters decide whom to support? Does a vote for one candidate not likely to win waste that vote? Should the voter pick the less compelling candidate, because she believes others are likely to pick that candidate, too?

This conundrum is what the system called “ranked choice voting” is intended to solve.

Adopted by Maine in its last election, and used by more than a dozen countries across the world, RCV gives voters the chance to say more than just which one candidate they support. Voters can rank their choices first, second and third. If their first choice doesn’t meet the threshold, then their vote gets shifted to their second choice. That process is repeated for every voter, until (in the primary at least), every remaining candidate has received at least 15 percent of the vote. The result would likely show which candidate is supported by most in her party. And the process is likely to induce the candidates to speak well of the other candidates in their party, since if they cannot get a voter’s first choice, maybe they can be a runner up.

This freedom to speak more clearly is critical in crowded primaries like 2020 is certain to be. With Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both running, then certainly the voters who support one are likely also to like the other. But if their votes can’t be ranked, then the support is split. Likewise with a candidate like Andrew Yang, who has championed a universal basic income as the focus of his campaign. A voter might well believe that idea deserves to be taken very seriously, but if Yang is not likely to win, she might decide to cast her vote elsewhere, thus underplaying the significance of Yang’s idea and forcing voters to support candidates they might not be as enthusiastic for.

The House Elections Committee had a perfect opportunity to give voters the chance to speak more clearly. A bill introduced by Rep. Ellen Read would have applied RCV to the upcoming primaries, as a way to test the idea before it would be applied to state elections generally. Nothing except the design of the ballot would have to be changed in the 2020 election. Nothing would change in the way the initial results were counted and reported. And indeed, the committee was offered the assurance that the costs of compiling the ranked choice results need not be born by the state at all. So for no additional money, and with no additional burden, the New Hampshire primary could have reported not just who won the first-place ballots, but which candidates were acceptable to the majority of the voters in either New Hampshire primary.

The New Hampshire primary is an important gift to American democracy. By forcing candidates for the highest office in the nation to campaign person to person, we get the up-close view of ordinary citizens about those candidates. New Hampshire citizens will have more exposure to the candidates running for president over the next year than citizens in any other state in the union. They will know more about them and their character than voters in any other state in the union. And rather than the cacophony of a split and divisive primary, America should hear more about what New Hampshire voters think than simply who their first choice was.

If New Hampshire is to do the nation’s homework in the presidential primary, then Democrats should allow them to say more than “here’s the first in this fundamentally divided field.”

(Lawrence Lessig is the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School and founder of EqualCitizens.US. His latest book is “America, Compromised.”)

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