The 2024 presidential primaries are underway, and seven Republicans have already jumped into the contest. That number will likely grow — 29 Democrats ran for president in 2020, and 17 Republicans in 2016. Crowded primaries are becoming common within Rhode Island, too: there are currently more than a dozen in the special primary election to replace outgoing congressman David Cicilline.
These large candidate fields should be a good thing. When more people step up to lead, voters have more choices. But our current single-choice elections turn this positive into a negative. Voters often feel like they’re wasting their vote, and candidates resort to mudslinging campaigns because it’s the only way to break through. These plurality primary winners enter the general election at a disadvantage, with the baggage of a negative primary campaign and without a united party behind them.
Thankfully, ranked choice voting can improve our elections. We’ve introduced a bill (2023-H 5649, 2023-S 0322) to implement ranked choice voting for the 2024 presidential preference primary. Ranked choice voting is simple. Instead of choosing a single candidate, voters rank the candidates — first, second, third and so on. If your favorite candidate fares poorly, your vote will count for a backup choice.
Presidential primaries are a perfect example of how ranked choice voting can make voting better. These contests are crowded. Sometimes candidates drop out after the ballots have been printed. Sometimes after people have already voted early. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a second-choice vote count?
Over 3 million Democratic voters in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, including thousands here in Rhode Island, voted for candidates who had dropped out by election day in 2020. With more and more ballots cast being early and by mail, this will affect even more Rhode Island voters in 2024.
And to earn delegates, or the people who vote for each party’s nominee at its national convention, candidates need a certain percentage of votes in Rhode Island’s presidential primary — at least 15 percent of the vote for Democrats, and 10 percent for Republicans. Candidates who don’t reach these thresholds don’t earn a single delegate, meaning their voters don’t have any real say in their party’s nominee.
Ranked choice voting can make voting better! If a voter’s first choice drops out, their vote can simply count for their next choice. If a voter’s first choice falls below the 10 or 15 percent threshold, their vote counts for their highest-ranked candidate above it. More voices are heard and more voters make a difference. It’s good for political parties too — more voters will feel invested because their vote counted for a viable candidate. More voters will cast a ballot for the ultimate nominee, even if they rank that candidate second or third.
Ranked choice voting also improves the quality of campaigns. Candidates are rewarded for seeking voters’ second- and third-choice support — showing where they have common ground with an opponent who those voters are ranking number one, instead of relentlessly attacking them. Voters can rank candidates in order of honest preference, without worrying about their favorite candidate’s poll numbers or if they might drop out of the race.
Ranked choice voting also levels the playing field for women candidates and candidates of color. Our current voting method often encourages potential candidates to “wait their turn” to run, in order to avoid splitting votes with another candidate from their community. Ranked choice voting removes this barrier, and ranked choice voting contests have elected the most diverse local governments ever in cities across the country — from the first majority-female City Councils, to the first Black and Latino mayors, to the first majority-people of color and LGBTQ+ City Councils.
Finally, ranked choice voting is proven in practice — it’s now being used, piloted or implemented in 60 cities, counties and states and was used successfully by five states for their presidential primaries in 2020. In these states, 98 percent of votes counted for a candidate winning delegates, compared to just 88 percent in single-choice states. The research is clear: voters across all demographic groups like and understand ranked choice voting, and take advantage of the ability to rank.
Rhode Island is ready to join this movement for better, more representative elections — starting with next year’s presidential primaries.
Better elections are within our reach.
Senator Valarie J. Lawson is a Democrat representing District 14 in East Providence. Representative Rebecca M. Kislak is a Democrat representing District 4 in Providence.