Who knew? Ranked-choice voting is coming to the presidential election.
When the clock strikes 7 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 3, and Iowa's first-in-the-nation presidential choosing gets going in schools, churches and libraries across the state, it is quickly going to become clear how the process for selecting the Democratic nominee has changed dramatically.
For one thing, a kind of multiple-choice question will play an important part in the results announced that night.
The changes, in response to concerns the system has been rigged in favor of establishment candidates, will make it easier for more Democratic voters to participate in the selection process and improve the chances the winner truly reflects the wishes of rank-and-file members of the party.
At the same time, the new systems for culling the field in Iowa and elsewhere have the potential to sow confusion among voters and those trying to explain the results to the public, leave the views of some voters unrepresented among the delegates who are chosen, and give campaigns the ability to muddy the outcome.
The biggest changes:
- At least 10 states have switched to primaries, leaving Iowa, Nevada and Wyoming as the only states sure to remain reliant on caucuses.
- Iowa and as many as five other states will see the presidential debut of ranked-choice voting, in which voters rank the candidates in order of preference -- and some win delegates because they're the second, third or fourth options for plenty of voters.
Ranked-choice voting is one of the more revolutionary ideas gaining momentum with advocates for a revamped and healthier democracy. They view it as a straightforward and logical way of rewarding candidates with broad backing and a commitment to consensus-building – while punishing those with a divide-and-conquer style aimed at galvanizing a base of impassioned supporters.
But critics say it's confusing, vulnerable to tabulation hijinks and contrary to the nation's first-past-the-post political tradition.
Because Iowa goes first, its use of RCV could prove to be pivotal to the future of the system, either accelerating its acceptance or burying it in derision.
So far, though, a majority of Iowans say they don't yet know enough about the new system to either approve or disapprove, according to polling published Sunday by the Des Moines Register.
"I think that anybody that tells you they know how this is going to work in actual life is absolutely full of crap," Sue Dvorsky, a former chair of the state party who is not affiliated with any of the 2020 candidates, told the paper. "I don't think they know at all."
But advocates say the enormity of the Democratic field makes 2020 an ideal time for displaying the merits of the ranked-choice system.
"The beauty of ranked-choice voting is that you always end up with a nominee with the widest support," said David Daley, a senior fellow at FairVote, the most prominent group advocating for the procedure. "On top of that, the power of each vote is magnified – you're able to cast a ballot that reflects the complexity of the field."
Aiming to enhance rank-and-file power
The changes are not yet official but are not likely to be abandoned. The Democratic National Committee must sign off by Sept. 13 on the delegate selection plans submitted by state parties. (A few states haven't finalized theirs.) But the plans so far appear to conform to the goals set out in the national rules for selecting delegates approved by the DNC last summer. Among other things they call for expanding "access to voting, including by early voting, no excuse absentee, same-day voter registration, and voting by mail." In addition, the rules call for creating ways to give a voice to people who are unable to be part of the process – such as attending a caucus – because of a disability, illness or simply the inability to get off work.
The first test for how well that's happening will be in Iowa, furthering the central role in deciding who becomes president the state has played since 1976, when a Georgia peanut farmer and former governor named Jimmy Carter used his broad grin and a surprise win in the caucuses to rocket himself to the nomination.
In 2020, in the six days before the regular caucuses, Democrats will be able to participate in "virtual caucuses" using a telephone or computer. It is here where ranked-choice voting will debut, because participants may choose up to five candidates to list in order of preference.
When the first choices are tabulated, only candidates with at least 15 percent of those votes will be considered "viable" and eligible for delegates. The candidate with the fewest first-place votes will be eliminated, with the ballots naming that politician No. 1 redistributed based on all their second-choice selections. That process will be repeated until only candidates remain who have amassed enough overall votes (top choice as well as second-through-fifth choice) to reach the viability threshold.
Similar systems will used by Democratic voters in Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas, Nevada and perhaps Maine for the allocation of their convention delegates.
In Iowa, however, the experiment is more limited. Only 10 percent of the first-round of delegates (to the state convention) will be chosen through the virtual caucuses. So, if participants online or on the phone are more than 10 percent of the total number of Democrats taking part in the overall process, their ranked-choice views will have been underrepresented.
Another scenario that could create party angst is if the top of the sprawling field splits the bulk of initial vote relatively evenly – for example, with six candidates claiming 10 percent, one gaining 15 percent and the other 20 percent. Under this scenario, only two of them would earn delegates, and the candidates combining for 60 percent of the vote would have nothing to show for it.
Another change coming to Iowa and the other states implementing ranked-choice voting in their primaries and caucuses is they will be encouraged to publicize more of their tabulated numbers. In Iowa, this means:
- The original choices of voters in the virtual caucuses.
- The final choices voters made in the virtual causes after their votes are redistributed.
- The original choices of participants in the traditional caucuses.
- The final choices of participants in the traditional caucuses after people move away from their original choices if those candidates don't reach viability.
Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, conceded that some people might be confused by the cascade of numbers, but added: "We will make it very clear that the results that matter for our purposes are the delegate allocations that come out" on the nationally televised in-person caucus night.
What ranking choices could mean
University of Delaware political scientist David Redlawsk, whose 2011 book "Why Iowa" extolled the state's role in populating the White House, applauds the virtual caucuses and their ranked-choice system. But he predicts the change may mark the demise of the Iowa caucus' prized role as the first test for presidential candidates.
That's because it is in essence a primary, and its expansion to cover the selection of more delegates could justifiably prompt the folks in New Hampshire – which remains home to the first primary – to cry foul.
For their part, New Hampshire Democrats have been working to switch to a ranked-choice primary but the required legislation has stalled in the legislature.
While still fairly rare, ranked-choice voting has been garnering a lot more attention recently.
Last fall, Maine was the first state to use the process in federal elections and it changed the outcome of one of the state's two House races.
Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin received more of the first-choice votes than Democrat Jared Golden or the two independent candidates but did not quite pass 50 percent. When the two independent candidates were eliminated and their second choices counted, Golden ended up with a majority.
National Republicans cried foul, but Poliquin's lawsuit alleging the new system was unconstitutional was quickly dismissed by a federal judge.
Rob Richie, the FairVote president, said that had it been used for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, Trump would not have jumped out to the early lead that propelled him to the nomination. He said after the election that ranked-choice voting would have resulted in either Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas or Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida as the nominee, because both "showed greater strength than Trump in head-to-head against Trump."
While most observers agree ranked-choice voting and the switch from caucuses to primaries are expected to have a major impact on the Democrats' election process, they also agree on one other thing:
No one knows for sure who the changes will favor.
For his part, Richie cautions candidates not to have their supporters try to figure out a way to scam the ranked-choice voter system.
"The smartest thing to do is for voters to vote sincerely," he said.
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Stacey Abrams, who gained national attention during her failed 2018 bid for the Georgia governorship, is urging Congress to restore federal oversight of elections in some states.
Had she won the extremely close contest, Abrams would now be the first black female governor in America. She and her fellow Democrats maintain the election was not fairly conducted in part because her Republican opponent, Brian Kemp, was secretary of state – and therefore Georgia's top elections official – at the time.
Abrams was the most prominent witness Tuesday at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on civil rights and elections in the six years since the Supreme Court eviscerated the heart of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In Shelby County v. Holder, the court struck down the part of the law requiring advance federal approval before any changes in voting laws or practices in parts of country with a history of voter discrimination. All of Georgia had been subjected to this so-called preclearance requirement, which the court ruled is now unconstitutionally outdated.
Calling for Congress to come up with a new system for preclearance that could withstand another such challenge, Abrams said that jurisdictions formerly covered by the law "have raced to reinstate or create new hurdles to voter registration, access to the ballot box, and ballot counting."
Abrams said a voter registration group she created in Georgia, which was active in her 2018 race, submitted thousands of forms to Kemp's office and soon discovered "artificial delays" in processing those registrations. The state's requirement that names on registrations exactly match records of other government agencies sidetracked thousands more.
Both practices had a greater impact on black citizens, she said, because they are more likely to register through third-party groups like the one she founded, Fair Fight Action.
And both, she said, would have been stopped in advance under preclearance.
Abrams also charged that Kemp improperly purged names from the voter rolls.
"By denying the real and present danger posed by those who see voters of color as a threat to be neutralized rather than as fellow citizens to be engaged," Abrams said, the six-year-old Supreme Court ruling "has destabilized the whole of our democratic experiment."
After the election, Abrams created Fair Fight Action to combat the tactics used against her. It has also sued the Georgia secretary of state and is asking the federal courts to revive preclearance for any election law changes in her state.
House Democratic leaders have written legislation creating a new set of rules for the Justice Department to use in determining which states must get such preclearance, and it has more than enough sponsors to pass. But the bill would almost certainly be shelved by the Republicans in charge in the Senate.
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The National Institute for Civil Discourse has a message for the 20 Democratic presidential candidates who will participate in debates on Wednesday and Thursday nights: Remember first grade.
In other words, don't poke your neighbor, wait your turn, and if you can't say something nice, don't say anything.
Seriously, the institute, which studies and promotes civility in political debate is reminding candidates of standards it developed in 2015 in advance of the last presidential election season.
They say that politicians living up to basic standards of civility, especially when they're on national television, is essential if the angry tribal nature of America discourse is ever going to ease. "Zingers and insults might get headlines, but it's leading to a culture of candidates who stand out by throwing punches and amplifying the polarization of our politics," said Keith Allred, the institute's executive director.
The guidelines for the candidates are:
- Be respectful of others in speech and behavior.
- Answer the question being asked by the moderator.
- Make ideas and feelings known without disrespecting others.
- Take responsibility for past and present behavior, speech and actions.
- Stand against incivility when faced with it.
The institute also developed guidelines for the moderators of the debates. (NBC and MSNBC are providing the ones for these debates.) They are:
- Address uncivil behavior by naming it and moderating the conversation to move toward more respectful dialogue.
- Enforce debate rules equally.
- Hold candidates accountable by challenging each candidate to speak the truth and act with integrity.
- Treat all candidates equally in regard to the complexity of questions and debate rules.
- Be respectful when interacting with candidates.
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