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Rank Choice Voting Could Help Cure the GOP's 'Candidate Quality' Problem
Unfortunately, some party faithful view it is as a liberal ploy instead of a way to restore its competitiveness
Wikimedia. Creative Commons. Tom Arthur
In the wake of Republicans’ disappointing outcome in the 2022 midterm elections, Speaker Kevin McCarthy has told donors privately that the party needs better candidates to keep their majority and expand it—and many House Republicans are now openly discussing potential nominees for 2024. Some GOP operatives are raising red flags about losers from 2022 running again, many of whom are the same candidates Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned about long before Election Day.
In other words, a consensus is quickly developing on the right that candidate quality matters, and for a party that lost the presidency in 2020, did not wrest back control of the Senate in 2022 and largely underperformed in the midterms, it’s hard to imagine a more pressing issue for the Republican National Committee to prioritize. But it instead has taken a stand against one of its best potential tools for fixing the problem: ranked-choice voting (RCV). While Republicans have been casting RCV as a “scheme” that increases “election distrust, and voter suppression and disenfranchisement,” they’re ignoring the strong evidence that Republicans often perform well under voting systems utilizing RCV. In fact, there’s a strong case to be made that Republicans benefit more than Democrats.
What Is Ranked-Choice Voting?
RCV is a way of allowing voters to rank candidates in order of preference rather than picking just one. Last-place finishers are eliminated one by one, with their votes reallocated to the next preferred candidate, until someone succeeds in capturing a majority of the vote. Contrast this arrangement with America’s traditional, “first-past-the-post” elections, where a candidate can potentially win with support from only a small plurality of voters. In perhaps the best example from the recent midterms, freshman Rep. Daniel Goldman won the overwhelmingly blue seat in New York’s 10th congressional district after receiving barely more than a quarter of the votes in the Democratic primary.
The appeal of RCV to Republicans should be obvious: At a time when unelectable candidates are earning their party’s nomination in “purple” swing states and districts, RCV could help ensure that nominees are broadly popular and ultimately more competitive in the general election. If Republicans had utilized RCV in Pennsylvania’s Senate race in 2022, for example, it’s plausible that David McCormick would have won the party’s nomination and triumphed over John Fetterman in the fall. That many GOPers are already working to nominate him again in 2024 is strong evidence that strategists recognize McCormick would have been more appealing to moderate Pennsylvania voters than eventual nominee Dr. Mehmet Oz. And even at the local level, it’s not hard to imagine Republicans winning seats in more moderate regions of deep blue cities like New York. Perhaps that’s why some conservatives there are calling to implement both primary reforms and ranked choice.
Nonetheless, the RNC apparently doesn’t see it that way, unanimously passing a resolution against RCV at their recent annual meeting. One prominent Republican, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, has derided RCV as a “scam to rig elections” and a “convoluted process” that “disenfranchises voters.” Now Republicans in some states have responded to the RNC’s marching orders, introducing legislation to ban RCV in states like Arizona and South Dakota after Florida and Tennessee did the same last cycle.
Ironically, Republicans’ actions come at a time when RCV has been gaining in popularity nationwide. States and localities as diverse as Alaska, Virginia, Utah and New York City have experimented with it as a way of selecting candidates. Virginia Republicans notably used RCV to determine their nominee in 2021’s gubernatorial race, and now-Gov. Glenn Youngkin went on to win the state in a surprise upset. Likewise, Republicans in deep-red Utah continue to utilize RCV at the local and county level after having implemented a popular pilot program in 2018.
A Pox of Unelectable Candidates
To be blunt, Republicans have an unelectable candidate problem. Contrast the Virginia example above with Georgia, a state until recently thought to be safely red that has since come to be dominated increasingly by the Atlanta suburbs. The state has now elected two Democratic senators—most recently after Republicans nominated Herschel Walker, an erratic gaffe-prone candidate with a murky personal history. Or there’s Arizona, the home of Republicans like Barry Goldwater and John McCain, which recently elected a Democratic governor and two moderate Democratic senators in back-to-back elections.
Republicans haven’t been faring any better in state-level politics either. In 2022, Pennsylvania Republicans nominated as their gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, an election-denying state senator who lost the swing state by nearly 15 points. A similar story played out in nearby Maryland—a blue state in which Republicans had held the governorship since 2014—where quixotic Rep. Dan Cox lost a lopsided contest. And of course, who can forget the nomination of Kari Lake in Arizona, which led to Republicans’ first gubernatorial defeat in the state in nearly 15 years?
These candidates continue to be nominated because most Republican primaries simply advance the top vote-getter to the general election. Many of these nominees don’t even earn support from a majority in their own party. In states without runoff elections, this setup favors ideologically extreme candidates at the expense of those who have an interest in governing and legislating.
For better or worse, this is a problem that Democrats seem not to have—at least as much. While their more populist progressive wing has gained in influence in recent years, the current head of the party is still notably more moderate. As New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez famously observed, only in the United States would she and Joe Biden “be in the same party.” She’s right: Unlike Republicans, Democrats have found a way to nominate moderates like Joe Manchin in West Virginia or Mary Peltola in Alaska, who have broad enough appeal to win even in deep-red states. That Democrats largely have been able to avoid more extreme statewide candidates only serves to magnify the GOP’s candidate problem.
A Better Chance in Purple Places
As Virginia in particular illustrates, RCV may provide an answer for taking back states Republicans otherwise thought were lost. But the case for them to embrace RCV goes well beyond the potential to reclaim blue states. Republicans readily admit they need all the help they can get at nominating better candidates in purple states too.
By continuing to utilize winner-take-all primary elections, Republicans have incentivized only the most extreme members of their base to run in the first place. With a system that makes it less likely for mainstream Republicans to win, it is no wonder unelectable candidates have become a pox on the party. Without a change, Republicans’ fortunes in the general election risk becoming a foregone conclusion.
Nearly half of Americans live in states that can be characterized as ranging from moderately Republican to moderately Democratic. These light-red, purple and light-blue states are the areas key to Republicans winning national elections—and they also are the places where the party would benefit the most from utilizing ranked-choice voting. Candidates who can win in South Dakota or Tennessee would rarely be viable in Arizona or Georgia, yet across the country, the party continues to nominate candidates who would only have appeal in solidly red states.
As suburban voters increasingly swing toward Democrats—in part because of unappealing Republican general election candidates—RCV provides an opportunity to stave off Democrats in districts that still lean Republican. Keeping the Texas suburbs in Republican hands, for example, will require the broadly acceptable candidates that RCV has shown it can deliver.
Ranked-choice voting has come to be seen in some quarters as a Democratic reform meant to bias elections toward Democrats, but the reality is that Republicans almost certainly would benefit more from a move toward the system. The party has piled up many losses in recent years, from the House in 2018 to the Senate and presidency in 2020 to the disappointing 2022 midterms, as well as a handful of state houses along the way.
So long as Republicans continue down the same old path, their electoral prospects are unlikely to look much different. The party needs to shake up how it picks its candidates and change who is attracted to run under the banner of the GOP. Only then will Republicans reclaim viability in the places where they are losing. In this sense, ranked-choice voting just might be the silver bullet they are looking for.
This piece was originally published at Discourse, a Mercatus Center publication.