With the split in the Republican Party growing by the day, the likelihood is increasing of a multiple-candidate presidential primary season in 2024. In that event, no doubt a large number of presidential hopefuls will declare their candidacy in a contest similar to the 2016 primary which began with 17 candidates. Meanwhile, the Democrats will also have a primary season beginning with several hopefuls, if not in 2024 then certainly in 2028.
Neither party has a rational procedure for choosing the final winner in these multiple candidate contests. If the current rules apply, those primaries will be conducted over many months, each decided by plurality rule, not majority rule. A series of plurality vote wins does not lead to majority rule. Instead, plurality rule in a series of primaries among a large number of contestants is highly likely to prevent majority rule as a matter of simple arithmetic.
To illustrate the general problem, consider a party with a core constituency of, say, 60% of its members. These are Republicans who yearn for a return to sanity and "principles" that they claim to believe in: free markets; individuality; personal responsibility; law and order, de-regulation, lower taxes, smaller government, and so on. Another 30% are fringe voters who grieve for the good old days, and a candidate who will vaguely promise to shake things up by protecting an imaginary Second Amendment not tethered to recent Supreme Court decisions, approving of police violence, freedom from vaccine and mask mandates, and abandoning logic and science as well as accurate history in schools. A smattering of "undecided" makes up the other 10%.
Now suppose that the 60% core voters are split among five candidates, each with about 12% of the core voters apiece. With the core vote split among the several candidates, a fringe candidate with only 30% of the vote can win an early primary contest determined by plurality rule. A recent example is the 2016 Republican primary season when Donald Trump won a series of early primaries with only 25 to 30% of the vote while the more traditional established vote was split among several more candidates including Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, and John Kasich. Because he retains solid support among at least 30% of Republicans, Trump is primed to do that again in 2024.
The Essence of the Problem
The presidential primary season is a sequence of contests, each one influencing the next in the series. The winner of the first primary in the series gains not only that election victory but also a first-mover advantage in the next election in the sequence: delegates toward the total number needed to eventually win the party nomination, growing donor support, improvement in the polls, media reports on the candidate's momentum, and priceless television interview time.
One by one, losing contenders drop out as donors give up on them and polls show them dropping. As candidates drop out after losing in earlier contests which were determined by plurality rule, winners of contests later in the series will get larger vote percentages, perhaps even greater than 50%. What is a majority vote in those contests is not a majority-rule result for the primary season; the contestants in those later contests were the survivors of earlier contests determined by plurality rule.
RANK CHOICE VOTING (aka INSTANT RUN-OFF VOTING)
Instant runoff voting (IRV) retains majority rule in all of the contests in the series, regardless of how many candidates enter those contests. IRV increases the likelihood that the winners of early primaries will represent the preferences of the majority of voters. Here's how it works: instead of voting for just one person, the ballot permits the voter to vote for several contestants, ranking them in their order of preference. After the polls close computers tally the first-choice votes. A winner is declared only if the top vote-getter has a majority of all votes cast. Otherwise, a new round of calculation ensues in which the last-place finisher is eliminated and their ranked votes are redistributed to the other candidates. If this second round calculation produces a majority vote-getter, that candidate is the winner. If not, additional rounds are calculated until a candidate does get a majority.
Conventional runoffs are time-consuming, expensive, and inconvenient for the voter. Consequently, neither party uses them. The default has been to designate the plurality vote-getter as the winner and move on to the next primary contest. By contrast, IRV is conducted by computer and results can be established very quickly after the polls close.
If the Republican party is to resuscitate itself into a principled, centrist organization, they should implement IRV for the 2024 presidential primary season. Similarly, whether it happens in 2024 or 2028, the Democratic party should appeal to their majority and do the same.
William L. Holahan is an Emeritus Professor and former Chair of Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.