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This primary season shows what’s wrong with our voting system

By David Daley - 07/14/22; View full article from The Hill

Between the relentless news cycle from the Supreme Court’s most recent term and the ongoing revelations from the House committee investigating the events of Jan. 6, 2021, it’s totally understandable if the late June primary results from Oklahoma’s second congressional district didn’t make it to the top of most newsfeeds.


Oklahoma’s second district is so safely red that it doesn’t get much attention anyway. Those tasked with prognosticating House elections add it to the GOP column and quickly move along.


Yet that’s exactly why this Republican primary mattered: The winner likely would coast into Congress this fall. This seat comes open so rarely — it’s been held by just five people since the late 1970s — that it attracted a robust field.


As a result, this little-noticed Oklahoma primary — a low-turnout race, in an uncompetitive district, crowded with 14 hopeful candidates — actually illustrated one of the growing problems plaguing our elections. And it showed what a dramatic difference ranked-choice voting could make in primary elections such as these.


The issue isn’t who won — state Rep. Avery Frix, who could become the youngest member of Congress — but how few votes the victorious candidate received. Frix finished first among the 14 candidates with 11,330 votes, which accounted for just 14.7 percent overall.


No one should be able to “win” a race when 85 percent of the voters in your own party prefer another candidate. And in a district where winning a party primary is tantamount to a seat in Congress, winning 11,330 votes shouldn’t be enough to represent all 720,000-plus Oklahomans who live in the second district. (Frix still has to win an August runoff.)


Ranked-choice voting would fix this problem. With RCV, voters have the power to rank as many candidates as they’d like, in order. If no one finishes the first round with more than 50 percent of the vote, the last-place candidates are eliminated, and second-choice votes come into play. It creates an instant runoff without forcing voters back to the polls, and always determines the candidate with the deepest and broadest support.


That hardly can be said about far too many races this year. This primary season has been a walking billboard for the merits of RCV. Oklahoma’s second district was hardly the only crowded Democratic or Republican primary won this year with a tiny plurality.


In Oregon, Christine Drazan will be the GOP nominee for governor after winning a primary with 22.6 percent of the vote. Mehmet Oz and JD Vance won high-profile GOP Senate primaries in Pennsylvania and Ohio with just over 31 and 32 percent, respectively. The GOP nod in Kentucky’s third district was won with just 29.5 percent, and Ohio’s 13th with just 28.6 percent.


On the Democratic side, Charles Graham won a North Carolina congressional primary with 31.2 percent. Two Democrats captured congressional nominations in Ohio with an identical 31.3 percent. In Oregon’s sixth district, the winner finished with just over 36 percent. In Illinois, Jonathan Jackson won a Democratic primary in a safe blue district with 28 percent of the vote, and Eric Sorensen captured the 17th district with less than 38 percent.


In all, at least 56 primary battles this year for the U.S. Senate, U.S. House, governorships or other prominent statewide offices have been won with less than 50 percent of the vote. Thirty-seven of those races have been won with less than 40 percent.

This isn’t good for voters and it’s even worse for governing. When candidates know they can win with a third of the vote — or as little as 14 percent — it means all they have to do is appeal to a small segment of the primary electorate.

And since we know that the most likely voters in a low-turnout primary tend to be the most committed members of the party’s base, this helps produce more extreme and less representative candidates for voters to choose between in November. In a one-party state or uncompetitive district, that plurality primary winner might then end up being the only choice everyone has.


When candidates know they need a majority to win, however, they’re more likely to run inclusive races that reach out to more voters. When it’s not enough to win with a small plurality, there’s no choice but to reach beyond the base and build a coalition.


Runoffs, like those in Oklahoma, might seem to be a good thing. In Oklahoma’s second, Frix will need to win one more race against the runner-up, former state senator Josh Brecheen. That’s a good thing; the ultimate nominee will have majority support. But it’s not good enough. Here’s the problem: Turnout almost always declines between the first round and the runoff. Indeed, turnout dropped between the primary and the runoff in 240 of the 248 primary runoffs for the House and Senate between 1994 and 2020 — and by an average decline of 38 percent.


Ranked-choice voting would allow everyone who participated in the primary to vote in the runoff at the same time, saving time and the cost of bringing voters back to the polls.


Crowded fields with lots of choices are exciting. Democracy prospers when lots of candidates run. But when voters have to cast a ballot in a dynamic, modern field with the same old single-choice ballot, they’re at a profound disadvantage and the end result doesn’t adequately determine the true will of voters. A ranked ballot would be an important step toward putting our democracy back in the hands of the people.

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