Final five voting may be having its moment

Johnathan Bydlak for the Hill

Since Election Day, most political commentators have been preoccupied with which party will win a majority in the House and Senate. But an important reform effort that should also garner attention has flown largely under the radar.


In addition to their federal races, voters in Nevada decided on State Question 3, which would make significant changes to the state’s election system. More specifically, the ballot measure would create open primary elections and use an instant runoff to determine winners in the general—together sometimes known as “Final Five Voting.” The Nevada proposal mirrors similar, high-profile reforms that passed in Alaska in 2020.


Opposition came from all corners of the state—partisan Democrats and Republicans; third parties; and the state’s two largest newspapers, the Las Vegas Review-Journal and Las Vegas Sun. But the effort was not without its supporters. The push was well-funded by many of the same backers who boosted Alaska’s initiative, and voters ultimately proved eager for the reforms.


The measure passed with 52.8 percent of the vote. Now it will advance to the ballot again in 2024, as state law requires that changes to the state’s constitution must be approved one more time by voters. Should it pass again, elections in the state will be subject to the new rules starting in 2026.

Like most states, Nevada’s primary elections determine the nominees from the major parties. Those candidates then advance to the general election, where whoever receives the most votes wins elected office.

Some states, however, are beginning to rethink the wisdom of such a system. The method of determining party nominees has changed over time, and the purpose of primary elections has itself evolved. As a recent R Street report notes, “Originally designed to air-out the party bosses’ smoke-filled rooms and democratize the candidate selection process, primary elections have begun to serve a new function—winnowing candidates for the general election.”


In contrast to how Nevada currently holds elections, the Alaska-style reforms implement a single primary that whittles the field to four or five candidates who then advance to the general election. The advantage is that voters are presented with more choices in November, rather than just the extremes that have increasingly come to characterize the modern primary process.


Likewise, using instant runoffs ensures that the eventual winner must achieve at least 50 percent support from all voters to win office. Presumably such candidates will be better incentivized to appeal to a broader portion of the electorate than is currently the case.

Similar efforts are underway elsewhere. Recently, Republicans in Virginia and Democrats in New York City utilized instant runoffs to choose their own party nominees for governor and mayor, respectively. In Wisconsin, there is movement to enact Final Five voting via legislation, and bills there have succeeded in attracting significant cosponsors from both parties. Lawmakers in Wyoming, meanwhile, have advanced pilot programs at the local level and have held hearings on potentially implementing open primaries and instant runoffs statewide.


Either way, these ideas won’t be going away anytime soon, and their first results seem promising.

Earlier this year, Alaska held a special election to fill the vacant seat of former Rep. Don Young (R) and selected Mary Peltola, a moderate Democrat who ran on local issues, over her more divisive far-right opponent, Sarah Palin. The same process was used again this November for all races on the ballot, resulting in surprising examples of cross-party vote splitting. While votes are still being counted, it seems likely that Alaskans will elect a Republican to the Senate and a Democrat to the House—despite both being statewide races.

Much more data will have to be gathered before we can determine whether these reforms produce the benefits their proponents suggest they can in practice. But Nevada’s experience shows that voters seem inclined to support ideas that might temper the polarization that increasingly infects our political system. Final Five voting seems well-poised to provide exactly that.

Jonathan Bydlak is the director of the Governance Program at the R Street Institute, a center-right think tank