PHOTOS BY DEREK KOUYOUMJIAN
NEW HAMPSHIRE—There’s something you can get a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, a North Carolina native, and admirer of presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, and a UVA student campaigning in earnest for the ever-more-tightly-faced Joe Biden to agree on.
Each believes American democracy could benefit from a drastic rethinking of the way elections are decided.
This week, the dead-center of the political universe falls in New Hampshire, where presidential candidates Democratic (and otherwise) are pitching themselves for high office to Granite State voters. At the crux of the case each makes is a value set they hope voters will prioritize. Some root their approach in innovation and novelty. Others negotiate between poles of familiar political shorthands. A signature issue is one way to try and stick out in voters’ minds, as is positioning oneself at the forefront of a historical movement.
But if there’s one characteristic each candidate for president hopes to be seen as, it’s electable.
Tuesday’s primary will go a long way in defining electability as we understand it. The night’s victor will earn the precious opportunity to tell the American people what a winner they are, and how very much they can be entrusted to take up the sacred charge of occupying the ballot slot opposite President Donald Trump. No shortage of breath has been spent obsessing over perceived shortcomings in all the personalities in the race, with punditry paradoxically asking each to explain why they should be considered viable contestants in an as-yet undecided contest.
When the slippery notion of electability is raised, the questions that follow center around loyalty and fealty. Should your candidate falter, it goes, will you vote dutifully for the candidate with the most viable chance to remove the 45th president from office? WIll you join in inoculating against the vulnerabilities we know can corrupt our elections? Or will you choose between equally unsatisfying options: sitting the event out, or casting your lot with a hopeless third-party choice, who even in the best case scenario could only serve as spoiler for the candidate with which they most align?
But what if there was a way to safeguard democracy by ensuring that candidates can’t win if they are opposed by a majority of voters—even if those voters are split on their first choices?
There is a movement taking hold in an increasing number of states and cities across the country with the power to redress these concerns and redefine notions of electability and viability. Ranked-choice voting, a nonpartisan structural reform effort, empowers voters to not merely select a single worthy candidate, but to rather pick and prioritize their host of favorites. Currently used or enacted at some level in 25 US states, the model also known as “instant runoff” or “single transferable vote” allows voters to rank their preferred candidates. In the first round of tabulation, only first-place votes are counted. If the results see a candidate achieve support from more than 50% of voters, the race is called in their favor. But if no one is able to build a base of support that reaches the midpoint threshold, the last-place candidate is eliminated, with the second-place votes from that ballot added back to the field, transferred to their next preference. If a candidate then breaks 50%, the race is won, otherwise the elimination and redistribution process continues until the matter is settled.
The model might seem complex when compared to our current winner-takes-all electoral system, wherein whichever candidate wins a plurality of the vote is declared the victor. It becomes more intuitive if you think about voting not as a means of deciding which candidate is most uniquely worthy, but as a method by which we evaluate the broader will of the electorate.
“Our voting system sucks,” says voting rights advocate Adam Friedman, founder and former executive director of Voter Choice Massachusetts. “It’s primitive, it cannot accommodate more than two candidates, and when it does it breaks down.”
Friedman and other ranked-choice supporters believe we currently ask too much of the electorate.
“Right now, voters are forced to act like political strategists when they cast their singular vote.” According to Friedman, if voters truly want to play a constructive role in the political process, they cannot simply back the candidate of their choice—they must also assess who they deem viable.
“Ranked-choice voting liberates voters to vote honestly,” Friedman says. “It allows them to vote not just with their head but their heart.”
“The minute you strip the voter’s calculus of viability, the horse race, who raised the most money, who’s being talked about by the pundits, you’re left with, Who are these candidates and what are their merits?”
In 2016, Maine became the first state to adopt ranked-choice. This Democratic cycle, early voters in Nevada will be free to submit a transferable vote, as will primary voters in Kansas, Alaska, Hawaii, and Wyoming. Last November, New York City voted to adopt ranked-choice in mayoral and city elections, and activists like Friedman are seeking to bring the matter to Massachusetts voters on this November’s ballot.
I’d rolled to New Hampshire as part of the Manchester Divided initiative to see whether the front lines of our national conversation felt as chaotic, fractured, and as impossible to compute as they had when mediated through the screens that served as my portal to the world. What I found was a frenzy of harried supporters visiting to fight for their champion, a media horde chasing the same old stories, and clutches of New Hampshire voters being hassled nonstop by them both.
Could these people convince me that perhaps a stable democracy looms over the horizon? After the disaster of the Iowa caucuses no less?
I understood that data suggested ranked-choice voting reduced negative campaigning and attack ads, instead encouraging candidates to strive to place as secondary choices by appealing to commonality, and not the heat-death wedge issues that have been so ably weaponized by hacks for at least all of my living memory. I knew, too, that the complaint most commonly leveled at liberals is the charge that as a movement, they fracture too often and too easily, especially in contrast to the conservative countercurrent, which by its nature breeds fealty to the leaders of the pack.
Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard have spoken positively about ranked choice, and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and businessman Andrew Yang are full-throated supporters. So I hit the road to see what unity could be found between supporters when it came time to consider a world of possibilities beyond the contest at hand.
Friday afternoon at Saint Anselm College, supporters from various campaigns gathered ahead of the Democratic debate. Through harsh snowy conditions, volunteers raised signs roadside in hopes of bolstering their top choice’s chances, Tuesday and beyond. Few wanted to consider the possibility of being members of a team that might fail to achieve victory in the all-or-nothing contest.
Still, the idea of a healthier democracy united them.
The University of Virginia undergrad there in support of Joe Biden was well-informed on the topics of ranked-choice and election theory. Perhaps he had good reason to be sunny on the matter, as a recent YouGov/Economist projection found that were ranked-choice adopted nationwide, it would favor the widely recognized former vice-president, thanks in large part to the number of Bernie Sanders supporters who express disinterest in voting for anyone besides the Vermont independent. Elections would be fairer under ranked-choice, the UVA student felt, but until they were adopted, nothing could matter to him than to back a horse with enough of that familiar currency—experience—to beat Trump.
A wide-eyed, middle-aged Buttigieg volunteer from North Carolina told me that while ranked-choice would not have led him to change his vote or loyalties, he is enthusiastic about the idea of a more positive political process. By assembling a professional profile seemingly tailored to the exact specifications of “electability,” the former South Bend mayor had won him over. Given the opportunity, though, he would have cast a second-place ballot for Biden, and a third-place one for Yang.
One Warren booster up from Staten Island echoed his candidate when asked about ranked-choice. Warren has been noncommittal but open to the reform effort, recently telling Boston University’s Daily Free Press that while she at first found the prospect confusing, the more she learned the more she liked, impressing her with the possibilities it presented. Her erstwhile surrogate at Saint Anselm agreed that he would like to learn more before laying his lot with the reform, but lauded the Massachusetts senator’s plan for a federal election system that would guarantee every citizen the right to vote.
One sign holder advertised something beyond a candidate. The Williamstown, Mass native carried a placard that read “Nanothermite,” a reference to the military-grade incendiary that he said was found in dust emerging from the World Trade Center following the towers’ 2001 fall. The traces, he claimed, were evidence of a criminal military conspiracy to foment a war mentality in the American people, among other things. His sign was a rejection of the field of candidates.
“I don’t think that there are solutions to any of our problems if we can’t question the fundamental premise of American militarism,” he said. “And none of the major candidates are willing to do that.”
But for his skepticism, the prospect of ranked-choice seemed to raise glimmer of hope. Were it adopted, he said, “people would vote for the candidates that they believed in, rather than the ones that they believe will win.” He added that if he were to support any major candidate in the race, it would be Andrew Yang.
Yang has made the most full-throated endorsement of ranked-choice, going so far as to include it on his campaign’s official policy page. Language on his website echoes that of issue advocates, championing its potential to increase voter turnout and eradicate the prospect of “spoiler” candidates that draw from voting blocs of common concern. The policy fits in well with Yang’s larger appeal of dramatic and ambitious systemic rethinking, reverse-engineered solutions to seemingly unending frustrations.
Given this, I figured of all the presidential campaigns, the Yang Gang would be the most receptive to talking about the benefits of ranked-choice. On Wednesday, during CNN’s televised town halls, I ventured to a campaign watch party at Manchester’s Stark Brewing Company, to talk with vols and organizers about what they thought of their MATH candidate’s support of the issue.
It proved to be the wrong room to mention the word “electable,” or try and explore the topic. I was interviewing an enthusiastic supporter who, eight months ago, had never made a campaign donation, and who six weeks ago had never had a real-life interaction with a like-minded Yang Ganger. Before long, though, I was interrupted by the Yang campaign’s deputy communications director; uncomfortable with my line of questioning, he asked that I cease interviewing volunteers.
I wanted to know how Yang might have approached the primary differently under ranked-choice voting, and whether the confusion surrounding the Iowa caucus (itself a form of ranked voting) diminished his belief that the US election system could ably handle such a dramatic restructuring. I wanted to know if Yang, whose slogan—“Not Left. Not Right. Forward.”—seemed designed to flatter and encourage the same kinds of bipartisan support that often accompanies third-party candidates, thought ranked-choice could re-train voters to see “viability” or “electability” in a new light.
More than anything, I wanted to know if he felt at all victimized or constrained by a media and electoral ecosystem that seemed at every turn to pay his candidacy lip service, historic for his inclusion but restricted by a perceived ceiling in its potential, for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of his ideas, or his competence, or his ability to draw from a wide base of support. Wasn’t this narrow range of “realistic” options just an oppression of ideas, under a different name?
Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect a response from a contestant at this point in the bout. After all, candidates are conditioned by the same circumstances as voters into all-or-nothing, boom-or-bust mentalities that afford increased cynicism and apathy. The risk of showing weakness or insecurity, of slipping from someone’s top choice to anywhere below, was too great. My questions went unanswered, my efforts denied.
After the days spent traveling New Hampshire in search of novel insights prognosticating the coming months of our political spectacle, of inroads to the minds of candidates and organizers seeking leadership roles in our market of ideas and government jobs, to compare the frame of mind of the wide-eyed visiting volunteers and resident voters of outsize influence with those in my home community, and to generally learn whether I could fairly expect my anxieties to be quieted by our process, I was left vexed.
Between the former Trump voters who said they would go for Bernie if given the chance, to the Warren organizers fretting that Bernie backers would stay at home for anyone besides their top choice, to Yang enthusiasts who didn’t want to give into cynicism disguised under “realistic” concerns, and everyone else in agreement about everything but the top of the ticket, I became convinced that it’s our sense of and fealty to binaries that lie at the root of our modern psychic disruption.
Supporters and skeptics of ranked-choice voting alike led me to believe that until the model is more widely adopted, the American political system will continue to function on an axis best described by a fictional auto racer more than a decade past.
In America, if you’re not first, you’re last.
At least for now.
This article was produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Manchester Divided coverage of political activity around New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. Follow our coverage @BINJreports on Twitter and at binjonline.org/manchesterdivided, and if you want to see more citizens agenda-driven reporting you can contribute at givetobinj.org.