By Dan Sally
The primary system as we know it was originally introduced during the Progressive Era as an alternative to candidates being selected by party bosses. The concept behind them was to add legitimacy to a candidate in the party’s grassroots and reduce the potential for corruption.
This system was implemented in a few states, but never gained widespread adoption until after World War 2, when the disruptive medium of television gave candidates from outside their party’s mainstream a way to appeal directly to voters.
After a series of campaigns by non-establishment candidates—including George Wallace’s attempt to send the 1968 presidential election to the House of Representatives via a third party bid—primaries were universally adopted as a way to allow candidates to challenge the establishment without burning the house down in the process.
In the past 20 years, we’ve seen the advent of equally disruptive technologies that have given equally disruptive candidates a way to appeal directly to voters. Channels such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter allow those running for office a way to circumvent gatekeepers in the media and bring their message to voters at low to no expense.
Some have applauded these candidates as bringing new ideas to parties that have grown out of touch with their base, whereas others have viewed them as fringe candidates who hurt their party’s chances of winning in the general election. As in the 1950s, another marginally adopted reform could hold the key to allowing ideological diversity in party primaries without hurting the party’s chances of winning office.
In 2021, Virginia’s Republican Party used ranked choice voting as an alternative to their pre-existing plurality system for selecting their nominee. When compared to the primaries in two high profile Senate primaries, those of Ohio and Pennsylvania, the benefits of this reform become clear.
Ideological diversity doesn’t need to be threatening
This year’s Republican Senate Primary in Pennsylvania was shaping up to be a highly contentious two-way race between celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz and hedge fund manager David McCormick. Late in the race, former radio personality Kathy Barnette began to rise in the polls and posed a problem for both.
Barnette had a history of anti-gay and anti-muslim comments, and also promoted the theory that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. As she gained popularity, election coverage began to center around her record of controversial statements, leading many to doubt her ability to compete in the general election of a must-win senate race for Republicans, and also leading to concerns this would hurt the Republican brand in the state.
In contrast, Virginia’s Republican Gubernatorial Primary held last year had a similar line-up, but without the same levels of anxiety. As with Pennsylvania, Virginia’s primary ended in a three way race between two more moderate, establishment candidates—Glenn Youngkin and Pete Snyder—and the less mainstream Amanda Chase, a state senator with the nickname “Trump in Heels.”
Like Barnette, Chase was widely popular with the right wing of her party and had a history that could make her noncompetitive in the general election, such as being part of the crowd that stormed the Capitol on January 6.
The key difference was that Virginia’s primary required the winner to gain over 50% support from their party, making it impossible for a candidate with less than majority support to take the nomination. As a result, Chase was given the freedom to campaign as a more unconventional candidate without more mainstream members of the party having to worry about her viability in the general election.
Ranked choice voting has built in majority support
This year’s Senate primaries in Ohio and Pennsylvania both resulted in winners receiving only a third of all votes cast. After a contentious primary season that saw a televised debate between candidates in Ohio nearly ending in a fist fight, nominee JD Vance now has work to do to repair relationships in their own party while they seek to prepare for the general election.
Pennsylvania’s case is especially problematic, as nominee Mehmet Oz squeaked by with under 1,000 votes after a recount was done, and Kathy Barnette refused to endorse him outright. This is not a good situation for the GOP to be in given Pennsylvania is a must-win seat for the Republican Party to gain control of the Senate.
While first round votes broke down in much the same manner in Virginia, with victor Glenn Youngkin receiving around a third of the vote, votes tallied in subsequent rounds gave Youngkin a clear majority victory, meaning he could head onto the general election with none of the questions around legitimacy that surround Vance and Oz.
What the results say
Republicans hadn’t won a statewide election in Virginia since 2009 and hadn’t held the governor’s mansion in roughly 20 years. In 2021, Glenn Youngkin won against incumbent Democrat Terry MacAuliffe, amongst voters who chose Joe Biden over Trump by a 10 percent margin the year before.
While JD Vance is ahead of his Democratic opponent in Ohio’s Senate race, Mehmet Oz trails his Democratic challenger for a seat now held by a Republican.
There’s no doubt voters have a thirst for new ideas and candidates that buck the party establishment. This is healthy for both parties and healthy for democracy.
In an era where the balance of power in Washington is up for grabs and races are often decided on razor thin margins, ranked choice voting offers parties a way to allow disruptive candidates a way to be heard while also ensuring a nominee who will unite and rally the party and deliver a strong performance in the general election.
Dan Sally serves on the Digital Strategy Council of Rank the Vote and is host of the podcast ‘You Don’t Have to Yell’, which discusses today’s most pressing issues without the partisan spin.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Rank the Vote, its members, supporters, funders, or affiliates.