Ranked Choice Voting would be better for voters in Vermont’s Presidential Primary

As Published in VT Digger in late February, 2020

By: Rick Hubbard, retired attorney and former economic consultant, now living in South Burlington.

On Tuesday, March 3rd Vermonters will head our polling places to select our choice in Vermont’s primary for US President. Take a moment to consider the effects of Vermont’s current voting system versus the alternative of RCV – Ranked Choice Voting on your primary vote as well as on the votes of all other Vermonters.

Based on our 2016 Presidential primary vote turnout, somewhere in the neighborhood of 197,000 Vermont voters will chose either a Republican (62,000+voters last time) or a Democratic (135,000+ voters last time) ballot. Depending on which ballot we choose, we will cast our vote for one of either thirteen Democratic candidates or three Republican ones.

Vermont has a certain number of pledged delegates for candidates for President that are allocated for use at the Democratic or Republican Conventions based on the result of votes in our votes on either the Democratic or Republican ballots in the primary. Each party sets its own rules for selecting delegates, subject to state election law.

For example, if we choose the Democratic party ballot, and although polls are changing fast right now, if our votes were to match the latest (as of this writing on Nov 7th) NY Times New Hampshire polling average, only 3 candidates totaling 58% of those polled, will come in above the 15 percent threshold to qualify for getting delegates; Sanders – 23%, Biden-18% and Buttigieg-17%. All others, including Warren-14% and Klobuchar-8%, would come out below the 15% threshold.

We, the remaining 42% of all Vermont voters (some 82,740 Vermonters in this hypothetical) who cast our votes for these candidates with less than 15% will have no say whatsoever in which candidate is awarded delegates to vote in the Democratic Convention that begins July 13th in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Our votes simply won’t count toward delegates. Instead, the national Democratic Party has decided for us and will allocate delegates based on our votes according to their choice, not as we might choose to do if we had a second choice.

For example, suppose you or I were one of the 10,800 (8% of 135,000 Democratic primary voters) Vermonters who voted for Amy Klobuchar. According to rules of the DNC-Democratic National Party, our 10,800 votes will be reallocated proportionately among only those three candidates totaling 58% of all Democratic primary votes who received votes above 15% (Sanders – 23%, Biden-18% and Buttigieg-17%). If, for example, you initially voted for Amy Klobuchar, how do feel about the lion’s share of your vote going to Bernie Sanders?

Wouldn’t you rather make that choice yourself?  Isn’t it our job to pick candidates, rather than the DNC’s?

Alternatively, if we choose the Republican party ballot and one candidate, say Donald Trump, receives 50 percent or more of Republican primary ballot votes, all of Vermont’s delegates to the Republican vote in the Republican Convention are initially bound to him when it meets August 24-27, 2020, in Charlotte, North Carolina. If no candidate receives 50 percent or more, the statewide delegates are proportionally bound to those candidates receiving at least 20 percent of the statewide vote. In the unlikely event no candidate receives 20 percent, the threshold is 15 percent. If no candidate receives 15%, the threshold is 10 percent. The RNC-Republican National Committee rules for those under the threshold, raise the same issue as for Democrats above.

We Vermonters would gain more control over our primary vote if our legislature required Ranked Choice Voting in the presidential primary. Using RCV ensures that with thirteen candidates on the Democratic ballot and three on the Republican, no one can emerge victorious until they have the support of at least half of all Vermonters who voted that ballot. Instead of the DNC or RNC deciding how one candidate might win, we voters would decide that outcome.

With RCV, we voters would rank the candidates from our first choice through our last choice. If no candidate wins at least half of first choice votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and the second choices of those who voted for that candidate are reallocated to the second choices of those voters. The process repeats until someone wins an absolute majority. This gives all Vermont primary voters more control over the effects of our vote, regardless of which party ballot we choose.

While there are bills in both the Vermont House and Senate for differing uses of Ranked Choice Voting in Vermont’ federal and state elections, they are not moving fast and there is no pending bill for its use in our Presidential primary.

We Vermonters must find ways to strengthen our democracy at a time when democracy is under threat nationally. Using Ranked Choice Voting strengthens one piece of that puzzle.

So which Vermont legislators of both parties will support such legislation so that we citizens who support RCV and strengthening our democracy can support them in their efforts?