Ranked Choice Voting Presets the Opportunity to Fix Arizona’s Problematic Presidential Primaries

Unite Arizona

A quick glimpse back to the past decade’s presidential primaries will tell voters all they need to know—our primary system is unsatisfactory and unfair.

Arizonans need look no further than the unjust treatment of our own voters. Take 2020: by the time Democrats in Arizona finally were able to cast their votes in the presidential primary, 12 of 18 candidates had already dropped out of the race. These “zombie candidates” trapped the votes of those who had previously turned in ballots, disenfranchising thousands of voters from having their vote counted. 

And, no, it’s not just an outcome of Democratic primaries. Rather, the issue permeates through both parties’ elections. In the 2016 Arizona Republican primary, Marco Rubio claimed 13% of the vote after he dropped out just days before the Primary election, depriving both Trump (47%) and Cruz (25%) of being able to claim majority in a hotly contested nomination process. 

It’s clear, the current presidential primary process is indiscriminate  — both Republican and Democratic primaries lead to disenfranchisement.

This has been especially problematic in Arizona’s 2020 primary, where 3.2 million voters took advantage of early and absentee voting. The Permanent Early Voting List, or PEVL, allows voters to vote absentee, and receive their ballots weeks before the official election day. Though flexible and accessible in nature, this is precarious considering when a candidate drops out, no matter how close to election day, voters who have already cast their ballots — early, in person or by mail — are effectively silenced, their votes wasted, and their impact minimized. 

And that is not even the entirety of the problem.

Presidential primary elections in Arizona operate differently according to party rules: the Democratic party allocates delegates proportionally to candidates who receive at least 15% of the vote. The Republican party typically allocates delegates in a winner-take-all fashion, where whoever receives a plurality secures all of the state’s delegate votes. Simply put, a candidate can win with just a plurality of support, rather than a true majority, or votes are wasted on candidates who don’t reach viability. Both of these elements have the impact of lessening Americans’ voices in their democracy, and allocating delegates disproportionately to voter preference. .

As dismal as the system appears, all is not lost. Ranked choice voting, also known as RCV or instant runoff voting, could change the unjust nature of presidential primary elections in the Grand Canyon state.

Ranked choice voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. If a voter’s first choice candidate drops out of the race or fails to meet a minimum vote threshold, your second choice candidate gets awarded your vote. If your second choice drops out, your third choice candidate gets your vote, ensuring that your voice is heard and your full range of preference is acknowledged. It also guarantees that the candidate who wins Arizona’s delegates also has majority support from Arizona Republicans and ensures the maximum number of viable delegates for Democratic primaries. This means that every voter has more power when filling out a ranked choice ballot and less risk of a wasted vote. 

RCV would be especially advantageous considering that in presidential primaries — which as the 2020 Democratic primary showed us — can have as many as 18 candidates. This is especially problematic early on when the field is crowded, and votes are wasted on either non-viable candidates or non-majority winners. With a crowded field, it can be especially difficult for any one candidate to win a majority of votes.

In the 2012 GOP primary, more than 50% of Arizonans voted for someone other than Mitt Romney, who won with a plurality vote of 47%. The majority of Republican voters’ preference was effectively neglected. With a RCV system, the 50% of Arizonans who didn’t vote for Romney would still have their voices heard, via their second or third preference.

Arizona has a unique opportunity to take a significant step in putting voters first by adopting RCV. Currently, House Bill 2378 in the Arizona state legislature would bring RCV to presidential primaries. The stakes are high, and in order to ensure that Arizona voters come first, it must pass.

As legislators make decisions about the future for voting in Arizona, it is important to recognize the flaws of the current system. Arizona’s current presidential primary system is not one that gives power to voters — it takes it away. A pivot to ranked choice voting would mean fair elections for years to come.Though the next presidential contest is a few years away, the future of Arizona primaries can be one that the voters see as fair instead of futile. In order to achieve that, the work must begin now.

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