At least a quarter-million votes were useless on Super Tuesday – ranked-choice voting would change that

  • Noreen Parent and Marie Chapman pick up their ballots to vote at the former Longley School in Lewiston, Maine on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal via AP) Andree Kehn

Monitor staff
Published: 3/3/2020 5:05:48 PM

If a fan of ranked-choice voting sat up all night to devise a scenario that would bolster their argument, they could hardly do better than the Super Tuesday Democratic primary in Maine and other states.

It’s not just that ranked-choice voting is best when there are a bunch of candidates to choose from.  The bigger issue is early voting. 

According to reports, approximately 2 million ballots, including about 22,000 in Maine, were cast in the Democratic primary in advance of election day in various states. At a guess, judging from polls, somewhere between one-eighth and one-fifth of these voters chose Amy Klobuchar or Pete Buttegieg, and then learned that their favorite had dropped out of the race after they sent in their ballot.

In other words, at least 240,000 people’s votes around the country are pointless. They will still be counted, but you might as well save clerks’ time and toss them out because their only checkmark is next to the name of somebody no longer running. 

If the Democratic primary used ranked-choice voting, however, those 240,000-plus people could still have a say in who will get some of their state’s delegates.

They could have designated a second and third choice, which could have been counted as the voting process went through the rounds of counting that are often known as instant runoff.

(A quick primer: In ranked-choice you rank all the candidates from first to last. If nobody gets a majority of first-choice votes then the candidate with the fewer first-choice votes is eliminated and results are recounted using the second choice on that candidate’s ballots. This keeps up until somebody gets more than 50%.)

Since the point of elections is to understand the will of the people, surely it would be a good thing to not silence a quarter of a million people. So maybe we should think about adopting something like this?

Advocates in both Maine and New Hampshire have tried to get parties to adopt ranked-choice voting for their primary, without success. That was no surprise in New Hampshire, where alternative-voting legislation has always fizzled, but there was more hope in Maine.

As you probably know, Maine because the first state to use ranked-choice voting on statewide federal races after ballot initiatives approved the plan – twice – despite legislators’ objections. It was used last November and resulted in an incumbent Republican congressman being voted out of office, which led the Republican Party to sue and has prompted efforts to undo the system.

Such opposition is not surprising. Ranked-choice voting is more complicated than traditional first-past-the-post voting, so opponents often suspect that the rounds of calculation are just a sneaky way to arrive at a pre-determined result, bypassing voters.

You may also know that the Monitor decided to see what the Democratic primary would be like with ranked-choice voting and ran a mock vote in December, when there were still 16 candidates on the ballot. Participation exceeded our hopes: 385 readers took the time to mark up the enormous ballot, cut it out and mail it in, a much bigger turnout than I expected.

It took 14 rounds of counting, each time winnowing out the lowest-total candidate, before we reached a winner. (It was Buttigieg – so much for our predictive power.)

That mock result showed that a lot of people are enthusiastic about ranked-choice voting and see it as one way to detoxify the current political climate. The idea is that candidates who may need to depend on people’s second or third choice will have to be less extreme and will have to pay attention to more people’s needs.

It’s no panacea, of course. A Nobel Prize-winning economist proved, in fact, that there’s no such thing as a perfect voting system and that all of them, including ranked-choice voting, have flaws. The work is called Arrow’s theorem and it’s very interesting if you’re into that sort of thing.

But even though it’s imperfect,  ranked-choice voting is one tool that might get more people to participate in, and trust, our democratic system.

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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