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  • Seal with a Pen

OH, IN Primaries + RCV

Yesterday marked the second set of primaries of the year, in the Rust Belt states of Ohio and Indiana. The results are interesting, to say the least; moderates and hardliners alike racked up victories, with the biggest winner of the night perhaps being former President Donald Trump, who avoided an embarrassing loss in Ohio's race for U.S. Senate. Few candidates in competitive races won majorities of the vote, with the winner often being the candidate who managed to split their opponents' vote better.

Most of these races were competitive for Republicans, but not for Democrats. Both Ohio and Indiana are increasingly Republican-leaning and saw a glut of conservative candidates in their primaries, while the Democratic frontrunners were clear long before last night.

For the purposes of this article, I will be using the results as reported by POLITICO. NPR has graciously provided the results of the major races in Ohio and Indiana on their website as well; there are, of course, other sources. Links to the state governments' websites can be found on NPR.

FOR THE SENATE: Arguably the most important race decided last night was the race to replace U.S. Senator Rob Portman, who is retiring this year after serving two terms in office. Portman, from Ohio, is one of the more moderate Republicans in the Senate. The Republican race to succeed Portman was highly competitive, with Trump-endorsed author J.D. Vance winning the nomination with less than one-third of the vote. Vance is not a moderate; his primary claim to fame is a book called Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir which seems to make readers either love it or hate it, while as recently as last month the candidate dismissed the U.S. effort to provide aid to Ukraine, which is heavily supported by the incumbent Portman. Vance will go up against Democratic U.S. Representative Tim Ryan in the general election, and in my estimation is likely to win.

FOR THE HOUSE: Ohio is a competitive state in the race to control the House of Representatives, with three races currently rated Toss Up by The Cook Political Report. Two of these are presently held by Democrats and are being targeted by the Republican Party in this year's elections. Neither race saw a comfortable win, however: in one, Trump-endorsed attorney Madison Gesiotto Gilbert won with just over a quarter of the votes cast, while in the other race hardline executive J.R. Majewski defeated both establishment and other hardline candidates to win the nomination with barely over a third of the votes. Although Trump-endorsed candidates tended to prevail in races for both the Senate and the House, allowing him to claim victory, only one of his chosen non-incumbent candidates for Congress managed to win a majority in the primaries.

FOR THE STATES: Only Ohio held primaries for its state executives last night, but the results are significant. Incumbent Governor Mike DeWine previously came under fire from his own party for responding aggressively to the COVID-19 pandemic and appointing a Democrat, Amy Acton, to be the Director of the Ohio Department of Health. Fortunately for his re-election, however, the anti-DeWine vote was split between a former U.S. Representative and a farmer, and although DeWine didn't win a majority of the primary vote, he came out on top anyways. Meanwhile, although a number of Indiana state legislators faced hardline challengers concerned about government overreach, most of them survived the challenges, and even some hardliners currently serving in the legislature lost their bids for re-election.

What does all of this mean? I have three takeaways: A) Trump avoided embarrassment, B) factional performance was middling, and C) a split electorate makes majorities disappear. Let's discuss.

A: As far as I'm aware, none of Trump's endorsees lost last night, even though their wins were by small margins. While a large majority of Republicans were willing to split with Trump's choice, they displayed significant disagreement on where to go next, and that disagreement meant that Trump prevailed in the end. I'm sure Trump would have endorsed plenty of these challengers in the end, had they won the primaries, but now he doesn't have to do so.

B: The different factions of the Republican Party -- including moderates, establishment, and hardliners -- seemed to perform at about the same level, with no clear winners or losers. Hardliners -- "populists" -- won some races, like J.D. Vance's Senate nomination, or J.R. Majewski's House nomination. Moderate and establishment candidates won other races, like Mike DeWine's re-nomination victory or Erin Houchin's House nomination for an open seat in Indiana. No faction seemed to come out a clear winner or loser overall.

C: Because the vote was so evenly split between different factions, majority support was elusive. Many candidates won their nominations with less than even a third of the vote, meaning that for every voter who supported them, there were at least two voters who didn't. This isn't a good sign for party unity, and it means that many of the nominees simply don't have a mandate from a majority of their party's members. It is reported that Vance's nomination comes with the least amount of support any Republican nominee has ever received for a regular U.S. Senate election in Ohio. It is possible that a majority of voters would have preferred a different nominee for any number of these races.

In some states, mostly southern -- such as Texas, Alabama, and Georgia -- if nobody wins a majority of the votes in a primary, the primary heads to a runoff between the top two candidates. This way, candidates can't win or lose because the vote was split too many ways. This system has been used in the South for decades, starting back when almost all races were assured to be won by Democrats and the winner of the primary was the winner of the whole election. In fact, two states -- Georgia and Louisiana -- have even extended this system to the November elections. Instead of allowing an unpopular candidate to win with the support of a third or fewer voters, this system allowed the people to vote for the candidate they liked best, without worrying about "spoilers" or splitting the vote between too many candidates. It doesn't necessarily favor one side or another: if we'd implemented in the same system in Ohio last night, it's possible that more moderate candidates could have won the nomination in races like Majewski's, while perhaps candidates opposed to DeWine could've pooled their vote to defeat him, without forcing either candidate to pull out of the race. Instead of seeing two-thirds of Republicans buck Trump's endorsement, we could've seen those voters turn around and support his endorsements in the runoff -- or we could have seen them lose. It can go either way.

Green states hold primary runoffs; dark green states use ranked choice voting (Credit: my own work, based on Wikimedia Commons and info from National Conference of State Legislators)

This is where I plug a policy I personally love, but about which you're free to make up your own mind: I'm just here to share the idea with you. It's called ranked choice voting (RCV), or alternatively, instant runoff voting. It's similar to the runoff system used in the South, but instead of having to organize two separate elections -- registering voters, hiring poll workers, getting voters to the polls, counting the vote -- ranked choice voting does it all at once.

In addition to casting their "main" vote for the primary, RCV voters get to immediately cast their vote for the runoff too, allowing all of the votes to be counted at once. There's just one issue with this: when the first vote occurs, there's no way to know which candidates will make it to the runoff. To solve this, RCV has the voters rank their candidates: this way, when the runoff happens, if a voter didn't cast their first vote for one of the runoff candidates already, they should have ranked the candidates that make it to the runoff anyways and whichever one they rank higher, that's where their vote goes. This "ranked choice" opens up a new possibility too: instead of just having a primary and a runoff, RCV elections have several runoffs. Instead of just letting the top two candidates in the first vote qualify, RCV just removes one candidate with each runoff until somebody reaches a majority. This is an improvement over runoffs, since in a normal runoff, the top two candidates may not be the most popular, and the rest of the vote may be split between more popular candidates. RCV solves this problem, and it does it all with one election, one ballot, one vote count.

Ranked choice voting (RCV) is already used by several southern states in order to count the votes of the military; that way military voters don't have to go back to vote in a primary runoff, but still get to have their votes counted. RCV is also used by Maine and Alaska for their elections, many towns (including Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and New York City), and many state parties -- including the Utah Republican Party and the Virginia Democratic Party -- to count votes at their conventions. RCV has proven itself to be safe, simple, and effective. Not everyone likes it, however: a dislike for RCV is one of the few things that California Democrats and Florida Republicans have in common. For some, RCV is regarded as a danger to the dominance of the Republican and Democratic Parties, since it removes the "spoiler" effect that keeps Americans from voting independent. It's easier for incumbents to game elections by splitting the votes of their opponents between many candidates and win by a plurality, than it is for a challenger to gather all of those anti-incumbent votes back together in the first primary.

I personally believe that RCV will strengthen American elections by allowing Americans to vote for who they like, not the lesser of two evils. It allows people to feel good about their votes, instead of having a bad taste left in their mouth. RCV has performed very well in the elections it's been used in thus far. It represents a future where the vote accurately represents the vote of every American voter, and where elections are harder to game. It is telling that the opposition to RCV is centered around those politicians who've lost elections because of it, and the two-party system that it threatens.

You are free to read the complaints of the Florida Republicans and California Democrats if you like; I've linked to a number of different criticisms above, and the internet is a wide open book. You're also free to read about how RCV has been a success. And you are free to make up your mind either way you see fit.

Ranked choice voting would've made sure that every candidate in Ohio received a support of a majority of the voters. Instead, candidates were nominated with the support of a quarter, a third of the voters. What seems to make sense to you?

Interested in learning more about ranked choice voting? Information is provided by different organizations such as FairVote, the National Conference of State Legislators, and Alaskans for Better Elections. Time published an article about RCV here.

FairVote explains ranked choice voting (from YouTube)

I hope you all have a wonderful day and a wonderful week, no matter your feelings on elections and the way they're conducted. May you all be blessed.

-- Seal with a Pen

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