The reform that could have saved a million ballots

Tyler Fisher
Senior Director, Policy & Partnerships
Unite America

Over 1,000,000 ballots were spoiled on candidates who had already left the presidential race in the 14 states that voted on Super Tuesday. After three major candidates ended their bids following the primary in South Carolina Saturday, early voters and those participating by mail had no way to change their vote in most states.

A week later, another 560,000 ballots were spoiled, including more than 342,000 in Washington where voters can participate by mail.

Vote totals from the Associated Press

In-person early voting and vote by mail are common sense reforms that increase voter turnout, especially in primary elections; we encourage these types of reforms that expand the electorate by reducing barriers to participation -- but we can make the system better.  

The answer is a simple change to how we vote: ranked choice voting

Ranked choice voting allows voters to rank their candidates in order of preference, from favorite to least favorite. In a presidential primary, if a candidate does not reach the 15% viability threshold, voters who cast first place votes for that candidate have their second place vote counted. 

Under the reform, an early-voting Mayor Pete supporter whose second favorite candidate was Joe Biden would have had their vote counted. Likewise, someone casting a vote from home for Amy Klobachar whose second preference was Elizabeth Warren could have had their voice heard after Klobuchar dropped out Monday morning; if Warren did not meet the 15% viability threshold on election night, the voter’s third choice would have counted.

In the three days in between the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday, three major candidates — Tom Steyer, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobachar — all ended their presidential bids. These candidates alone accounted for over 800,000 wasted votes

Nevada already successfully used ranked choice voting in 2020 for voters participating early. Nearly 75,000 voters cast ranked choice ballots while only 30,000 participated at in-person caucuses. All Democratic primary voters in Alaska, Kansas, Wyoming, and Hawaii will use the system. 

Ranked choice voting is not a partisan issue, though. On Tuesday, over 100,000 spoiled votes were cast for former Congressman Joe Walsh, who dropped his primary bid against President Trump weeks ago. In 2016, hundreds of thousands of votes in the Republican primary were similarly spoiled as candidates dropped out of the race. 

As states like Massachusetts and Alaska consider joining Maine in conducting their general elections with ranked choice voting, both the Republican and Democratic parties should consider upgrading their elections to a system that puts voters first by giving them more voice, choice, and power in the process. 

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