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What Is Ranked-Choice Voting? What to Know About 2020

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“We are disappointed that Maine voters won’t be able to use ranked-choice voting for the March primary,” David Farmer, a spokesman for the Committee for Ranked-Choice Voting, told me. “Given the unprecedentedly large field on the Democratic side, the primary was a perfect example of the type of election where ranked-choice voting would be useful and where voters have told us they want it.”

Kansas is also moving to a primary from a caucus for the first time, and Democratic officials there turned to ranked-choice voting in part to maintain a piece of the unusual experience of caucusing, Vicki Hiatt, the state party chairwoman, told me. Caucusing is a public form of voting in which supporters will switch their allegiance from a candidate who does not reach the threshold of viability, which is usually 15 percent in a precinct or caucus site. “Ranked-choice voting seemed the most logical answer,” Hiatt said in an interview.

Ranked-choice voting also helps solve a dilemma unique to long primary campaigns. The Kansas primary isn’t until May 2, when the field of candidates is almost surely going to be much smaller than it is now. But the filing deadline for candidates is in February, meaning that like other late-voting states, many Democratic contenders who have quit the race in the interim are likely to still have their names on the ballot. In 2016, Richie told me, more than 700,000 votes were cast in the Republican and Democratic primaries for candidates who had already withdrawn from the race—a wrinkle exacerbated by the rise in early voting. If voters are ranking their candidates, it’s more likely that their second or third choice will be counted in that scenario. “That was a factor,” Hiatt said.

The appeal of ranked-choice voting, according to its proponents, is that it allows for more guilt-free voting, which they argue will lead to increased turnout. People can go with the longer-shot candidate in a primary or a third-party candidate in a general election they like most without fearing that a vote for that person will actually help the candidate they like the least. Ranked-choice voting might have come in particularly handy in 2016: Liberals who loathed Clinton could have ranked Green Party nominee Jill Stein first without worrying that it would help Trump, while conservatives or libertarians could do the same with Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party nominee. “This empowers the voter a bit more,” Hiatt said.

Critics of the format say it is overly complicated and confusing, and its supporters told me that they need to do more work to educate citizens about ranked-choice voting. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez has praised the idea, but the national party is not actively encouraging states to adopt it. “If anything there’s been a little resistance,” Hiatt said, referring to the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, which must approve procedures for selecting delegates in 2020. (A DNC official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the committee’s rules “do not take a position on ranked-choice voting.”)

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