This is an unusual election year in the United States, both in terms of the breadth of the Republican field and the strength of populist candidates in both parties. But some aspects are unfortunately extremely normal for the US’s two-party, plurality voting system:

  1. a candidate can win the party nomination even when most party primary voters support someone else;
  2. a tiny number of voters pick two candidates for the rest of us; and
  3. the cycle is plagued by negativity.

How Trump is winning, even though most Republicans aren’t voting for him

As of Super Tuesday, Trump is leading the Republican field with about one-third of the Republican vote. In other words, two-thirds of Republican primary voters want someone other than Trump. A super-majority of Republican voters so far have divided their votes amongst four other candidates, but whom would they choose if they could consolidate? What if Carson and Kasich had already pulled out of the race and their supporters had the chance to instead vote for one of the remaining candidates?

Ranked-choice voting permits voters to rank candidates in order of preference. If a voter’s first choice drops out of a race, their vote is transferred to their second choice. By simulating a series of runoffs in a single ballot, this system enables you to vote for an underdog without “throwing your vote away,” and it avoids the risk of splitting the majority vote between two similar candidates, thereby allowing a candidate with only plurality support to win (think: Gore/Nader/Bush, or Bush/Perot/Clinton). Ranked-choice voting ensures a majority of voters support the winner.

FairVote, the College of William and Mary, and YouGov gave 1,000 Republican voters the chance to fully express their candidate preferences through ranked-choice voting. The result: Ted Cruz eventually beat out Donald Trump (click through to Round 9). A plurality of voters ranked Trump first, but a majority of voters ranked Trump towards the bottom of their list. As candidates with the fewest top-ranked votes dropped out, more voters chose Cruz than Trump. But in our plurality voting system, in which voters only get one bite at the apple even in a race with more than two candidates, a candidate with mere plurality, not majority, support can win.

Meanwhile, the uncrowded Democratic primaries are hewing to majoritarian principles. Votes are split between just two viable candidates, so by definition, a majority of voters support one candidate. In this case, 61 percent of voters who voted in Democratic primaries through Super Tuesday voted for Clinton.

How extremist candidates make it to the ballot

With partisan primaries, a tiny fraction of voters select two candidates for the rest of us. That might be fine if primary voters looked basically like the general population, but unfortunately, primary voters are not like the rest of us. They are usually older, whiter, more extreme partisan voters.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

Party primaries make it more likely that a small number of the most diehard voters will select extreme candidates within each camp. Very few voters participate in primaries—even with record Republican turnout, only about 20 percent of registered voters from the 16 states that have run their primaries have cast votes in Republican primaries, and 12 percent of voters have had a say in Democratic primaries. As a result, the current Democratic and Republican front-runners, Clinton and Trump, have garnered just 8 and 7 percent, respectively, support from registered voters in states that have held primaries. Those voters may not really speak for the other 85 percent of us.

A nonpartisan top four primary combined with ranked-choice voting would change this. All primary voters could weigh in on all candidates. More primary voters would have a chance to advance their favorite candidates to the general. All of us would get a chance to choose amongst a range of candidates, instead of being forced to choose between two partisan, and possibly extremist, candidates.

Why Republicans are getting so dirty

When there’s no prize for second place, candidates see nothing to lose and everything to gain from attacking each other. For example: Cruz ran an ad comparing Trump to a house-smashing action figure, while Trump accused Cruz of being dirty and dishonest. Meanwhile, Trump and Rubio hurled schoolyard insults about each other’s hair, ears, sweat, height, and spraytan.

  • Ranked-choice voting rewards candidates for talking about their policies, not their p****** (ahem). Candidates competing for second-choice votes want to positively engage voters, even those who already plan to give their first-choice spots to an opponent (watch Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges explain). That’s why voters across all demographic categories perceive campaigns in ranked-choice contests to be less negative. And a less negative, more substantive campaign sounds pretty enticing right about now, doesn’t it?

    Ranked-choice voting would yield more accurate, civil, results

    Voters in the Northwest states have not yet voted in the presidential primaries. Washington state Republicans held their caucuses in February, though delegates won’t be officially assigned until the May convention; its Democratic voters will get to cast votes during the party’s March 26th caucuses. Republicans and Democrats in Idaho will hold primaries on March 8th and caucuses on March 22nd, respectively. Oregon voters won’t cast ballots until May. Still, as we observe results from the rest of the country, it’s abundantly clear that plurality voting and party primaries can pervert the democratic process.

    With ranked-choice voting, Trump, with support from just one-third of one party might not have a shot at becoming the president of the entire country. And with a top four primary, we might all get a chance to choose between the current front runners: Clinton, Trump, Sanders, and Cruz. With ranked-choice voting, we could choose the leader of the free world based on who wins majority support, not who tears down opponents just enough to eke by with plurality support. A sensible voting system may seem distant from this month’s sophomoric political theater, but ranked-choice voting is a viable and well tested method that could create real change in how elections work in the United States. 

    Want to see how ranked-choice voting works? Go here and try it yourself.