116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Iowa was the subject of global ridicule 18 months ago when the state Democratic Party badly bungled counting and reporting of the all-important results from the 2020 presidential nominating caucuses. It wasn’t all Iowa Democrats’ fault, though — the caucus itself was the real culprit.
The New York Times a week later noted that caucuses “have been derided as old-fashioned, opaque or inaccessible.” It was one of many such news pieces and commentaries from the time, pointing out the obvious shortfalls of our old-timey nominating process and wondering whether there’s a better way.
“But even before Iowa, a new idea was catching on for 2020: ranked choice voting,” a Times journalist reported in February 2020.
It would preserve some of the interesting elements from our usual nominating contests, while also dumping some of the worst parts.
Ranked choice voting is an alternative voting model that is slowly and sporadically gaining traction around the United States, with heightened interest following the New York City mayoral primaries last month. In the fallout of the 2020 snafu, it’s been pitched as a replacement for the type of nominating caucuses made famous in Iowa.
For many Iowans, however, ranked choice voting would not be such a radical departure from the status quo. It would preserve some of the interesting elements from our usual nominating contests, while also dumping some of the worst parts.
Most U.S. political contests are plurality elections, where voters choose one candidate per open seat and the winner is the one who gets more votes than the others. In a ranked choice system, sometimes called instant runoff, voters can mark multiple candidates on their ballots in order of preference.
If no candidate gets a majority of first-preference votes, the ballots go through multiple rounds of counting. In each round, the candidate with the least votes is removed from the contest and ballots with those candidates as top preference revert to their next choices. The field is whittled down until one candidate has more than 50 percent of the vote.
Ranked choice voting “generally makes our elections more positive, inclusive and fair,” according to FairVote, a national organization pushing for election reform. By allowing voters to choose multiple candidates, proponents say it diminishes the “wasted vote” and “spoiler” effects associated with third-party and independent candidacies.
It might sound complicated, but it’s not so bad compared to Iowa’s prevailing institutions.
The realignment process at Iowa Democratic caucuses has the same spirit as ranked choice voting, except it’s done in just about the worst way imaginable. Supporters of candidates who are not viable on the first alignment at their caucus site can choose another candidate to support instead.
But the caucus system was specifically designed to empower party insiders and be inaccessible to regular folks. It historically requires you to show up at a particular time and place, sometimes for several hours, to have your preference counted.
Iowa’s primaries for non-presidential offices also have some similarities. If candidates don’t meet the 35 percent requirement in the primary election, the nomination goes to a party convention, where parties use successive rounds of runoff voting to pick a nominee. Here again, it’s an arrangement that favors hyper-partisans over normal people.
And some cities in Iowa, such as Cedar Rapids, have runoff elections for local office. That’s more accessible than the party functions, but it still necessitates an additional expensive election.
With all the idiosyncrasies and partisan favoritism, it’s no wonder some states and cities are moving to ranked choice voting.
Democrats in a few states in 2020 used ranked choice voting for the first time in presidential nominating contests, either to replace or supplement their caucuses. Nevada — which is vying against Iowa to be first in the nation next cycle — ran a caucus last year but allowed early voters to use ranked-choice ballots, which mimic the caucus realignment process without making anyone scurry around a high school gymnasium.
Maine recently became the first state to implement the voting method for federal races and state primaries, including in 2020 as the first state to use it for a presidential general election. Eight other states have ranked choice voting in some local elections.
Political parties and local governments in Iowa would need legislative permission before they start experimenting with alternative voting models. No ranked choice voting bill has ever been introduced in Iowa, let alone given serious consideration.
Members of Better Ballot Iowa, an organization launched this year in support of ranked choice voting, recognize they face a long haul to reshaping Iowa’s elections.
“Our strategy is purely educational, we’re not trying to push a bill right now. … I do a lot of our social media so I can tell you a lot of people misunderstand it or just don't know what it is, so we have this wonderful blank canvas to go out and start talking to people,” said Matthew Wetstein, an organizer with the group.
Better Ballot Iowa is doing outreach to political activists and hosting a series of informational meetings about ranked choice voting. The next is a statewide Zoom call on July 15, with information available at betterballotiowa.org.
Skeptics of ranked choice voting argue it doesn’t live up to its promise and might make the voting process more confusing, especially to low-information voters. Worst of all, they say, it does that while rarely changing the outcome of elections.
In the vast majority of examples from the United States — including the recent New York City primary and last year’s Maine presidential election — the candidate who ended up winning the ranked choice count was the same candidate who won a plurality of votes on first count. It’s the same result but with more steps.
Over time, though, advocates expect new political dynamics to emerge as voters and candidates get accustomed to ranked choice voting.
“When you change the rules of how something happens, it takes a while for people to realize they've been liberated of those rules,” Wetstein said.
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