Long-time Beacon readers know I am not one to share my political views. For this reason, the Beacon does not endorse candidates for public office.
But I do like to share my thoughts and feelings about important matters of the day, and I think it’s fair to say that a number of important issues pertaining to our elections are very much in the news today — from voter registration, to gerrymandering to the potential for fraud.
However, the two ideas I want to talk about here are different, and probably not ones you’ve heard a lot about — if at all. But I feel these recommendations should be deeply important to voters in the Beacon readership area, and ultimately could have a much greater positive effect on the future of our country if they are widely implemented.
I am speaking about open primaries and ranked-choice voting. Let me explain.
Unlike Virginia, in Maryland and D.C., (and eight other states), primaries are “closed.” That means only voters who have registered in advance as either Democrat or Republican can vote in the primary, and they can only vote for candidates from their party.
Independent voters — who constitute a growing percentage of voters and are the largest or second-largest group of voters in nearly half of the states — are shut out from closed primaries entirely.
That might sound reasonable at first glance. If independent voters aren’t members of a party, why should they help elect that party’s representative?
Because primary elections in “safe” legislative districts effectively decide the general election winner as well!
The winner of the largest share (known as a plurality) of votes in a closed primary may actually represent only a small minority of a county’s, district’s or state’s voters: those who a) registered for the winning party, b) voted in the primary, and c) voted for the winning candidate in the primary.
As a result, if there are a number of candidates in the primary, the winner of the general election may represent as few as 7.4% or 14% of all voters.
I am not making up these numbers: In both Montgomery County, Md. and Washington, D.C., there have been general election winners in recent races who won no more than that proportion of a closed primary’s votes.
Not only does this feel unrepresentative, it also can have the effect of boosting the chances of the most partisan or extreme candidate. How?
If, in a group of multiple primary candidates, there are several centrist candidates but only one who possesses extreme views (and who has a small but loyal following), voters who prefer moderate candidates will likely split their votes among several, allowing the more extreme candidate to win the primary (and often the general election) despite having won only a modest plurality of primary votes. (And yes, this can and does happen in national elections as well as local ones.)
Which brings me to the issue of ranked-choice voting.
In elections like I described above, a plurality of voters chooses the primary winner. That is, the candidate with more votes than any other candidate wins, even if they are only selected by a small percentage of voters.
In ranked-choice elections, voters don’t just vote for their favorite candidate. They rank their top candidates in order of preference: first, second, third, fourth and even fifth choice.
If your first choice ends up in last place, that candidate drops out of contention and your vote automatically goes to your next choice. This continues for all voters until one candidate wins over 50% of the vote.
In effect, votes are tabulated as if the voters were called back for a series of run-offs, and the winner is the first candidate to get more than half of all votes (albeit the second- or third-choice votes from some voters).
This ends the problem in many primaries of voters agonizing over who should get their vote. Should it be their true favorite, or the one who they think has the best chance of winning? With ranked choice voting, they can vote for their favorite, but also have a say in choosing the winner should their favorite not make the cut.
This method is likely to lead to more moderate or centrist elected officials. That’s because candidates in a ranked-choice election will be more likely to address the concerns of a broader array of voters if they know they can’t win the election with votes from only a small base.
By the way, Virginia state law requires open primaries. But the winners are chosen by plurality, rather than ranked choice. So, while I admire Virginia for allowing all voters to truly participate in primary elections, I think its leaders also should give serious consideration to ranked-choice voting.
In a column of this length, it’s impossible to address every aspect of these proposals, or even to bring up all the counterarguments (and, of course, there are counterarguments).
I think in many ways the future of our country may depend on making these changes in some form. Knowing that our votes count — and that a truly representative government results from our elections — seems to me the only way to inspire more Americans to care about elections and take the time and trouble to vote.
I am interested in hearing your opinion on these topics. Please email your letter to the editor to firstname.lastname@example.org, or submit it on our website at thebeaconnewspapers.com/contact-us.