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Ranked choice voting deserves a place in presidential primaries

The current plurality system punishes voters and rewards candidates who have a fervent base and splintered opposition.

A clerk handed a ballot to a voter Nov. 8, 2022, in Lewiston, Maine. The state of Maine uses a ranked choice voting system for some of its election races.Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu has a blunt message for the dozen candidates seeking to wrest the GOP presidential nomination from Donald Trump: Yes, the former president can be defeated. But the field needs to shrink first.

In an Aug. 21 op-ed in The New York Times, Sununu beseeched Trump’s rivals to coalesce around the strongest three or four candidates heading into his state’s first-in-the-nation primary in February rather than dividing the “someone else” vote among the dozen hopefuls. Otherwise, Sununu argued, Trump will win the GOP presidential nomination — even if only a minority of voters actually support him — and the GOP would face an electoral bloodbath up and down the ballot.


It’s hard to argue with Sununu. Trump strides atop opinion polls both nationally and in the early primary states. In those polls, Republican voters who prefer the alternatives make up the majority. But a candidate with an unwavering base between 35 percent and 45 percent can’t be stopped if other GOP voters scatter their support across the field.

The New Hampshire governor has the wrong strategy.

Instead of pleading with politicians for selflessness, Sununu should get behind ranked choice voting for his state.

Ranked choice voting would fulfill Sununu’s goals of rewarding a majority winner without depending on a scenario in which politicians concede an early defeat and sacrifice lifelong ambitions. Just as important, the 2024 presidential campaign would not need to be short-circuited before the first primary. More Republican voters — and leaders — could make themselves heard.

Ranked choice voting is the nation’s fastest-growing electoral reform. Five state Democratic parties used it in their 2020 primaries and caucuses. Virginia Republicans adopted it to select the strongest candidate for governor in 2021 and nominated a winner in Glenn Youngkin — the first Republican to win statewide office in more than a decade. Maine now uses ranked choice voting for nearly every election. Voters love it because it makes their voice more powerful and gives them an important tool in any election with more than two candidates.


In a ranked choice election, voters have the option to rank their top choices rather than vote for a single candidate. It works like an instant runoff. If no one wins a majority during the first round, the first-choice candidates with the least votes are eliminated and the second-choice candidates of those voters become their first-choice vote. This continues until someone crosses 50 percent.

The current plurality system punishes voters and rewards candidates who have a fervent base and splintered opposition. Sununu understandably wants to counter this by encouraging hopefuls who fail to catch fire in debates or the Iowa caucuses to leave the race. But where’s the motivation for any candidate to take his advice? Running for president is a tremendous job with good benefits: higher lecture fees, cable news interviews, a staff that flatters you as a future president, endless hotel loyalty points, a shot at a Cabinet appointment. Why would any of the candidates cede the spotlight prior to New Hampshire?

The race shouldn’t be dictated by one or two states. Why should a small number of Iowa caucus-goers be the only Republicans able to weigh in on the party’s presidential field? That’s no way to determine the most electable candidate either. With ranked choice voting, the campaign season could unfold at its own pace, one dictated by the voters and the issues. No one would have to be hustled off stage. Voters could determine the candidate with the widest and deepest support. And instead of talking over each other at debates they’d be courting second-choice votes.


Maybe GOP voters would choose Trump. If so, he’d head into the fall election with the party behind him. But if a majority of voters want to move on, they’d be able to do so. And in an uncertain legal climate for the former president, Republicans could find value in knowing who the overall second choice would be.

Sununu is onto something real, and Senator Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, has made a similar argument. In far too many elections, a large field and many choices are weaponized against voters, forcing them to perform complicated calculations over which candidate to support so that they don’t accidentally help someone they like the least. Will a vote for former New Jersey governor Chris Christie or former vice president Mike Pence boomerang against a voter who would prefer another nominee or a new face of the party? The way we vote now, it might.

The solution isn’t forcing candidates out of a race. The answer isn’t less democracy and fewer choices. It’s more. Give voters the ability to rank the field. If Sununu wants to ensure a majority winner, he can do more than endorse a candidate — he should endorse ranked choice voting.


David Daley is the author of “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”