Ranked choice voting preserves democracy

By Sen. Valarie Lawson and Rep. Rebecca Kislak
Posted 4/11/24

When Rhode Island voters went to the polls earlier this week to participate in the presidential primary, they saw ballots with multiple options but only one choice. Of the seven candidates who …

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Ranked choice voting preserves democracy


When Rhode Island voters went to the polls earlier this week to participate in the presidential primary, they saw ballots with multiple options but only one choice. Of the seven candidates who gathered enough signatures to earn a spot on the presidential primary ballot, only two candidates remain viable — Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Votes for any of the other candidates were effectively wasted.  

No voter should feel like their vote is wasted, especially if they cast a ballot for a candidate who drops out of the election before the ballots are counted. We have introduced legislation, H 7540 in the House and S 2425 in the Senate, to solve this problem. Our bill would give Rhode Island voters the option to rank the 2028 presidential candidates in order of preference — first, second, third, and so on. On Election Day, voters’ first choices would be tallied, and candidates without enough support to win delegates would be eliminated. Ballots with those candidates ranked first would be counted again for their second choices. This process would continue until the only candidates remaining were those with enough support to win delegates. Ultimately, the political parties determine how presidential delegates are awarded, but RCV gives them a look at the real preferences of their voters. 

Ranked choice voting gives voters more choice, more voice, and more power. Our current single-choice elections often lead to voters feeling like they’re wasting their vote, and candidates resort to toxic campaign strategies to appeal to extreme factions that do not represent a true majority. RCV elections ensure that nominees represent the will of the people by empowering voters to back their preferred candidate instead of feeling they have to vote strategically against another candidate.

We are focused on presidential primaries in part because the dynamics in these races — as we have seen — can change quickly. In 2020, over 3 million Democratic voters alone cast their ballots for candidates who dropped out of the race before the votes could be counted. This included 6 percent of Democratic primary voters — about 6,000 people — in Rhode Island. That same year, 5 million Democratic voters across the country cast their ballots for candidates without enough support in their state to win delegates. 

Unlike single-choice voting, where ballots for presidential candidates who drop out by primary day have no impact, RCV gives voters more choice, ensuring every vote counts. If a voter’s preferred presidential candidate doesn’t meet the threshold, they can still help another candidate win delegates. In our current single-choice system, candidates who don’t reach these thresholds don’t earn a single delegate, meaning their voters don’t have any meaningful say in their party’s nominee. 

By allowing voters more nuance than a simple “yes” or “no,” more voices are heard and voters have more power to make a difference. RCV also incentivizes candidates to appeal to a wider audience of voters to earn their second or third choices. That’s good for political parties because when voters feel invested in a viable candidate, nominees perform stronger in general elections knowing they have the support from a majority of the party. However, voters still have an option if they so choose, to vote for one candidate.

Ranked choice voting also encourages candidate diversity, especially for women and candidates of color. In a crowded and polarized presidential primary, candidates of color and those with similar platforms fear dividing community support. But an RCV presidential primary election would prevent this vote-splitting, meaning candidates might spend less time tearing down their opponents and more time focusing on positive campaigning.

Rhode Island is primed and ready to step into the next era of modernized elections. Our elections are too important to leave any votes on the table. Better presidential primary elections with RCV are not only within our reach, they are the key to preserving democracy.

Sen. Valarie Lawson (D-Dist. 14, East Providence), the Senate Majority Whip, and Rep. Rebecca Kislak (D-Dist. 4, Providence) are the sponsors of legislation to institute ranked choice voting for presidential primaries in Rhode Island.

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