Why you should care
A new way to vote could open up the pivotal New Hampshire primary.
Ellen Read is a state representative, a college professor, a public bus driver — actually, she was fired from that last gig recently for trying to unionize. But today, the 39-year-old is most certainly an activist. “Man, this is a hike,” she says, after parking with the cars lined up a half-mile away. A volunteer shovels snow as she enters the house party where more than a hundred New Hampshire residents are gabbing ahead of the main event: Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
Read also wants to see Klobuchar, but she wants to convince the presidential contender to back her ranked-choice bill, a law that could make voting more democratic and have significant ramifications for the Granite State (and the nation) next year. So Read takes a strategic seat, so close to the New Hampshire pine box pulpit that she could tug the Senator’s jacket from behind. Uncomfortably close. It’s the type of positioning lobbyists pay thousands for. That’s how much is at stake.
In just the first two months of 2019, 17 states have introduced legislation to create some sort of ranked-choice system, which, as in other nations like Australia and Ireland, allow voters to rank candidates in order of preference and count those second and third choices — until one candidate receives a majority of the vote. In all, 19 states have some form of ranked-choice voting in place. The process eliminates expensive run-off elections, where turnout is often dismal, and most experts believe it is crafted to better reflect the will of the majority. Democrats in the crucial first caucus state, Iowa, have announced plans to use ranked-choice voting in 2020 as part of a “virtual caucus” to combat criticisms of accessibility during the 2016 election.
Of the states left still considering these laws, New Hampshire will reign as by far the most important — due to its potential kingmaking status in the already-crowded Democratic primary. No presidential candidate has won the nomination of either major party without placing in the top two in New Hampshire since 1972.
Advocates like Read worry an electoral crisis is pending in New Hampshire and other states if they don’t switch to ranked-choice. Candidates need at least 15 percent of the total vote to receive state delegates, and there could be 20 or more Democrats splitting the vote next February. That means a very possible scenario where the front-runner ends up with, say, 20 percent of the vote, says Read, and secures all delegates without having won even close to a majority of votes. An alternative, equally bad scenario? “None of the candidates reach the 15 percent threshold at all,” says Read, laying it out. “In that case, nobody gets delegates.” The Republican side came close to that situation in 2016, when Donald Trump won the state with just 35 percent of the vote, while the next four candidates split 50 percent among them.
It upholds the will of the majority without trampling on the voice or rights of the minority.
Tiani Coleman, president, New Hampshire independent voters
Ranked-choice began in 19th century England and found success in the Bay State, with Cambridge, Massachusetts, adopting it in 1941. It grew to seven Massachusetts cities in the ’40s but faced backlash after it elected diverse candidates (in a pre-civil rights era New England) and lessened party bosses’ influence in elections, according to political expert Douglas Amy in “A Brief History of Proportional Representation in the United States.” Its progress slowed, and modern critics say it is too difficult to explain and implement with voters used to conventional voting. But with primaries getting more and more crowded – 17 Republicans were in the race for the presidential nomination at the start of the 2016 cycle – ranked-choice has gained unprecedented urgency. As an approach, many believe it’s also more democratic.
“It upholds the will of the majority without trampling on the voice or rights of the minority,” says Tiani Coleman, president of the New Hampshire independent voters who has brought together a bipartisan group to fight for ranked-choice.
Coleman saw the success of ranked-choice when she was chair of the Salt Lake Republican Party in Utah during the 2004 gubernatorial primary. Voters liked it because they felt they could vote their conscience without losing the value of their vote. Meanwhile, the eight candidates ran friendlier campaigns, knowing that they were also campaigning for people’s second choice, she says: “It was good to field such a huge field of candidates and feel like there was an ability to wade through it all.”
It’s already being used in places like Oakland, California, and Takoma Park, Maryland. Maine is the only state so far that has adopted it for federal elections. Its first congressional election since the change led to a dramatic upset victory for Democrat Jared Golden in November, with the candidate winning by just 3,000 votes after having lost on the first-preference ballot.
Critics find it hard to wrap their minds around situations like that. “I won the election fair and square,” Republican Bruce Poliquin, the incumbent, told reporters after the loss, and he tried (unsuccessfully) to sue to reverse the results. “I don’t like that. One vote. One person,” says Brad, a Nashua native and Democrat attending the Klobuchar event, who asked for his last name not to be included. “You don’t get a second vote with me.”
Maine didn’t report any issues at the ballot box or around additional costs. Still, New Hampshire legislators are wary. When Read led a ranked-choice bill last year, it was shot down. And in January, the effort died in committee again, although this time it was because Read had reached an agreement to get it on the New Hampshire House floor next year, after lawmakers have a chance to study the issue in the fall.
Still, that would be too late for the New Hampshire primary in 2020. So Read has resorted to other tactics, securing the promise of state Sen. Martha Fuller Clark to introduce a rider to another bill in the Senate in March. “It is a Hail Mary,” Read admits. But Clark, a former congressional nominee and nearly three-decade statehouse stalwart, is well-regarded and could push it over the finish line. “I think that will help bring leadership to the table,” Coleman says.
Meanwhile, Read and her allies are trying to get presidential hopefuls and local representatives on board. South Bend, Indiana, mayor and presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg has said he would support ranked-choice, as has likely presidential candidate Eric Swalwell, a U.S. Representative from California. “I like it. It gets rid of an all-or-nothing proposition for the voters,” says Swalwell, who implemented it for student government elections at the University of Maryland. At the Klobuchar event, Read finally gets her moment in a quick grip-and-grin — but the candidate is noncommittal, and Read gets handed off to the campaign chief of staff, who asks for her business card and mentions Minneapolis has already implemented ranked-choice.
“They sounded relatively positive,” Read says hopefully. She recognizes it’s “not a major stumping issue” — yet. “But if we don’t do this, this will be a big embarrassment,” she says. “Not just for the first in the nation primary, but this will be embarrassing for the whole Democratic Party.”
Correction: Due to a counting error, the original version of this article stated that there were eight candidates in the 2004 Republican primary for governor of Utah. The number was seven.