Why Democrats should use ranked-choice voting if the convention is contested

When the Democratic National Convention meets in July, it’s quite possible this would be the first time in nearly 70 years that no presidential candidate arrives with the support of the majority of delegates who vote in the first round. 

What comes next could be quite messy and divisive, and political science research suggests that divisive primaries can be politically damaging. 

One way forward was floated and rejected by most candidates in the pre-Nevada caucus debate. Bernie Sanders said that the candidate with the greatest number of delegates should be selected as the Democratic standard-bearer. But all the other candidates supported following the long-standing rule that the nominee should be backed by a majority of delegates. 

Allowing the plurality winner to prevail without a majority would go against a key rule of the Democratic party and wouldn’t look legitimate. 

The 2020 Democratic National Convention will be held in Milwaukee in July. (AP Photo/Carrie Antlfinger)

Another possibility would be to do what used to happen a lot — have delegates vote numerous times until one candidate emerges as the majority winner. There are no elites who can negotiate or broker a solution anymore, but delegates could reach their own conclusions, perhaps taking their cues from leaders they respect. 

Who would participate in these rounds of voting? The first ballot would only include pledged delegates, who got there based on the choices of primary voters and caucus-goers. That’s because, according to a 2018 rule, if no candidate has initial majority support from pledged delegates, superdelegates couldn’t vote on the first ballot. Those superdelegates, also called unpledged or automatic delegates, are largely elected officials and state party officials. 

But multiple ballots over time, with delegates moving from one candidate to another, could cause deep and harmful party divisions, depending on the candidates, how they stood before this, and if superdelegates pushed the ultimate nominee over the top.

Superdelegates were a big issue during the 2016 Democratic nomination fight. 

Back then Sanders initially opposed superdelegates having an impact on who would become the nominee, painting them as undemocratic elites. 

But after it became clear that he would arrive at the 2016 convention with fewer pledged delegates than Hillary Clinton, Sanders changed his position. When journalist Lester Holt told Sanders that using superdelegates to overturn the results of the primaries and caucuses would defy history and the will of the voters, Sanders replied, “Defying history is what this campaign has been about.” Ultimately the superdelegates backed the winner of the pledged delegates, as they had every other time.

Then, as now, delegate selection politics is, well, political. 

Overall, the trend in the Democratic party has been toward greater democratization. There were few primaries until after the disastrous 1968 convention in Chicago, which came after a strong showing by Sen. Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary led President Lyndon Johnson to not run for re-election. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated that spring. And at the convention, Chicago police attacked protesters in the streets, tear gas wafted into the convention hall and ultimately Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, who hadn’t entered any of that year’s 13 primaries, became the nominee.

After Republican Richard Nixon won the presidency, reforms by the Democrats’ McGovern-Fraser Commission led to having delegates mostly based on preferences expressed at primaries and caucuses. 

After losing in 1972 and 1980, Democrats gave party leaders a greater role by creating superdelegates. 

So what should happen at this year’s Democratic National Convention?

Democrats should borrow from a system used by Maine since 2018 in some elections — ranked-choice voting. This vote should be taken on the first ballot so that just the delegates from primaries and caucuses choose a majority winner based on the ranked-choice voting’s instant runoffs. 

A party committee that typically meets the weekend before the convention can propose using ranked choice and ask delegates to vote on the proposal. 

Using ranked-choice voting by just pledged delegates respects the preferences of voters and caucus-goers and upholds the principle of majority rule. Superdelegates should then ratify pledged delegates’ choice. 

This approach could avoid a big political mess, demonstrate the winning nominee’s ability to assemble a majority coalition and advance party unity.


Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.