My Turn: New Hampshire primary proves we need ranked-choice voting for president

For the Monitor
Published: 2/26/2020 6:00:17 AM

After almost two years of hard work, suffering thousands of hours of television ads, endless digital ads, house parties, town halls, coffee shop speeches, and millions and millions of robocalls, New Hampshire voters have given us their insight in to the 2020 Democratic presidential campaign: Bernie Sanders convinced 25.6% of them, Pete Buttigieg won over 24.1%, and Amy Klobuchar surprised everyone by rallying 19.6%.

But the views of the rest of New Hampshire, more than 30% of the votes cast – which is more than total votes of the frontrunner – will not count in the final results because no candidate getting less than 15% of the vote will get any delegates from New Hampshire.

We could have learned so much more.

No one should underestimate the gift that New Hampshire gives to the rest of America. Most of America pays little attention to primary races. Most never attend a public meeting or meet a candidate running for any federal office. But New Hampshire takes its first-in-the-nation primary responsibility very seriously. Almost 300,000 turned out, about 20% higher than in 2016. And that is on top of a practically endless engagement with candidates in every possible public place – as well as countless living rooms across the state.

Yet for all that work, all we have learned after the vote is a single dimension of a very complicated question: We know their first choice in a field of 10, but don’t know who would unite Democratic voters beyond that first choice.

When Abraham Lincoln went to the Republican convention in 1860 – when conventions were how candidates were selected – he wanted to be everyone’s third choice. After the frontrunners had their fight, his team figured the convention would come around to him as the candidate who could unite the party and win the election. They were of course right in that strategy, because conventions give parties a chance to measure not just who’s liked, but who can unite. Conventions gave delegates a way to say not only who they like best, but who they all could support.

Elections today could do the same thing, without the smoke-filled rooms of a convention. If the voters in New Hampshire – the people who know these candidates better than any of us anywhere – had had the chance to rank their choices, Democrats today would have a much clearer sense of this still fractured field.

Sanders supporters say that Sanders would unite the party. They could well be right. It could well be that most of the votes of the discarded candidates – including Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden and everyone else – would have gone to him, and he could have left the Granite State with an absolutely clear mandate, not just in delegates but, if the calculation were run to the single winner, in moral authority.

Or it could be that Klobuchar was the real Lincoln of this race, pushed even higher by the discarded first-ranked votes, and then ultimately to the front, as the second-ranked votes of even the first-ranked candidates get counted.

Yet we just don’t know. Instead, we must suffer the endless speculation of pundits telling us what New Hampshire voters really thought. Rather than adopting a way to collect their views that would have told us something as serious as the work they’ve given us in these past two years, New Hampshire gets represented now in the thinnest and least interesting way.

Other states have been more innovative. This year, Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas and Wyoming will all rank their votes in the primary, so that no voter’s views will be discarded in the final count. Maine will use ranked-choice voting for the general election. These experiments will help show America a better way to get to a majority though mainly in states where the campaigns have not been as retail as the campaign in New Hampshire.

When the 2020 primary is over, no one will have worked harder than New Hampshire to work out who should prevail. It is a real loss that so much work got wasted in the report of a single number.

Democracies are meant to be majoritarian systems. They are meant to work to find the views and the people who actually stand for a majority. We can’t do that with simple elections when more than two viable candidates run. We need to update the way we count the voters, so that elections can speak for them as fully and as seriously as we expect them to speak.

(Lawrence Lessig is Roy L. Furman professor of law and leadership at Harvard Law School and founder of Equalcitizens.us. He is the author of “They Don’t Represent Us: Reclaiming Our Democracy.”)




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