After a brief stint as frontrunner, it seems that Senator Bernie Sanders has fallen to a distant second behind a resurgent Joe Biden, who has consolidated support from the rest of the party. This shift of support was sudden and unexpected and left the Sanders campaign to weigh their options after a disastrous Super Tuesday performance.
It’s an open secret that the Sanders campaign was relying on a contested primary; his campaign was confident that reaching only 30% of the vote would allow them to either win outright or to force a contested convention. Sanders currently has 29% of the votes, but the problem is that Biden has 35% of the vote and a delegate lead.
As Daily Kos noted, “They built a campaign that demanded little of Sanders: no change in message, no effort to broaden the coalition… his campaign had zero interest in building actual majority support.” This isn’t an indictment of the Sanders campaign – Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination with around 40% of the vote. Rather, this is an indictment of the primary system.
First-past-the-post is flawed
In theory, primaries are designed to ensure the voters of each party have their choice of a nominee. The problem is that the current system benefits candidates that can consolidate smaller, more passionate groups of voters rather than candidates that can appeal to the whole party. Because you can only choose one candidate, the vote often splits and enables a polarizing candidate to win with a small percentage of the vote.
This is why Sanders was running to hit 30% – he hoped an aggressive, anti-establishment campaign would give him the largest and most consistent chunk of liberal voters. Unfortunately, it also kind of defeats the purpose of primaries, which should be to pick a candidate that the most party voters can support, not the choice of a a small but vocal minority.
This isn’t just an issue in presidential primaries, of course, but it’s most notable in them, and it’s played a major role in the 2016 and 2020 primaries. So what a solution? One commonly-proposed alternative is ranked-choice voting, where voters rank the candidates on the ballot and votes are transferred to ensure the most popular candidate wins. The problem is that this system is arcane and complex; it’s not easy for the average voter to guess who the formula might churn out, and sometimes the candidate with the most first-preference votes might lose. An alternative exists, however, and it’s called approval voting.
What is approval voting?
Approval voting is extremely simple. All the candidates are listed on the ballot and you can vote for as many or as few as you want. The candidate with the highest number of votes wins. This is a very easy process that requires little to no explanation and doesn’t even require a fundamental change in how we count ballots.
This system has flaws, to be sure, and might not be suitable for a general election. But for a primary election, approval voting seems like a no-brainer because it ensures that the party nominates the candidate the most people like every time; there’s no need to worry about if your candidate will have to consolidate support, because the support is already there.
Additionally, approval voting would be useful because it requires candidates to appeal to all wings of the party – not just one faction or one geographical area. A presidential primary winner chosen by approval voting would truly be the consensus choice, and the single most important factor in primaries would be cross-coalition appeal. In theory, this method would be less likely to select polarizing or subpar candidates because their main method of winning (split fields) would be gone.
It’s worth noting, of course, that insurgent candidates wouldn’t have no chance of winning. By accounts, many of the policies and ideas Sanders and Trump support have broad appeal within their parties, and many local, state, and federal candidates have been inspired by them. What approval voting would do, however, is require them to run on these ideas positively.
Regardless of what steps are taken, it’s clear the American presidential primary process is flawed at best. While it’s certainly worth looking at changing the order of primary states or at changing the delegate process, voting reform should also be strongly considered, and approval voting might just be the best option.