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3 Keys to a Far Better Way of Choosing Presidential Nominees

If states changed where and how we select candidates, turnout would soar and we'd learn a lot more about what voters really think.

Joe Biden speaking and pointing with a flag behind him
Former Vice President Joe Biden officially joined the 2020 race last week.
(AP/Michael Dwyer)
In August 2016, 35 percent of the respondents in a Monmouth University poll said they had an unfavorable view of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, shattering the previous record in comparable polls, 9 percent in 1992. With the first state presidential primaries and caucuses just nine months away, it's a good time to reflect on how our current presidential nominating system managed to produce two such disliked nominees -- and what states and political parties might do to prevent a repeat.

A major overhaul is overdue for two major reasons, starting with voter turnout. In 2016, nearly three of every four eligible Americans failed to vote in their state's presidential primary or caucus. Only in New Hampshire, where 52 percent of eligible citizens voted, did more eligible voters turn out than not. While turnout in pivotal states ranged from 20 percent in New York to 37 percent in Ohio, it was so low elsewhere you wonder if voters had forgotten there even was a presidential race: 8 percent in Minnesota and Nevada, 6 percent in Maine and just 4 percent in North Dakota.

The second problem is reflected in this fact: In 2016, most primary and caucus participants cast their ballots for candidates other than Trump or Clinton. Trump, for example, pulled off wins in a dozen states where he received 42 percent or less of the votes cast. Of the 38 Republican primaries and caucuses held prior to May 1, Trump won majority votes in just six. The vote-splintering problem that bedeviled Republican candidates in 2016 could prove even worse for Democrats in 2020, given that party's already crowded presidential field. It's entirely plausible that the winners in key initial contests might end up getting no more than 20 percent of the total votes cast.

What can be done about these two problems? The simplest way to boost turnout is to jettison party-controlled caucuses, which tend to attract only the most passionate of party activists, in favor of state-run, taxpayer-financed primary elections. Six states -- Colorado, Idaho, Minnesota, Nebraska, Utah and Washington -- have done that for 2020, and Maine is likely to follow suit.

Switching from a caucus to a primary election can boost turnout in an exponential fashion, from single digits to as much as 50 percent. But given the importance of these contests, turnout can -- and should -- be far higher still. Oregon's pioneering experience since 1996 shows one way to do this: Skip the traditional polling place and just mail every eligible voter a ballot.

While the median turnout rate for 2016's 38 presidential primary elections was just under 40 percent, in Oregon's May 15 primary 61 percent of eligible Republicans and nearly 70 percent of eligible Democrats cast ballots. These numbers are even more impressive considering that by mid-May of that year both parties' nominations were considered mathematically wrapped up.

In the 2020 primary cycle, Oregon will no longer be alone in this approach. At least two other states, Colorado and Washington, will also use this "vote at home" system (which will include hundreds of drop sites and vote centers for voters who prefer the "in person" experience of returning their ballots over simply dropping them in a mailbox).

Minnesota will hold its primary on March 3, along with a dozen other Super Tuesday states, and Secretary of State Steve Simon is urging a vote-at-home approach, in part because it would cost millions less than a traditional polling-place election. Simon also flags another problem this would solve: the challenge of convincing the state's 30,000 election judges, many of whom spend their winters out of state, to show up for duty.

Weather is hardly a trivial consideration. Between early February and late April 2020, more than half of America's voters will be asked to cast presidential-preference ballots. The blizzards, flooding, tornados and other weather disasters ravaging various states this spring suggest that the weather could have a far more powerful influence on next spring's voter turnout than anything dreamed up by Russian cyber-attackers.

And what about vote-splintering? Here it's worth looking at the "ranked-choice voting" (RCV) system that Maine voters approved in 2016, and which was used successfully in 2018 for the first time in a statewide general election.

RCV (sometimes referred to as an "instant-runoff" system) allows voters to choose their most preferred candidate while also indicating their ranked order of preferences for others on the ballot. This avoids the "spoiler effect" -- think Ralph Nader in the 2000 Florida presidential election. Beyond that, it would give convention delegates and journalists, as well as voters, a far better sense of which candidates have the broadest potential appeal regardless of their showings in primaries and caucuses.

Combining these two innovations, vote-at-home ballot delivery and ranked-choice voting, would be especially powerful, promising to vastly boost turnout while yielding far more insight into voters' true preferences. Taxpayers would save millions. Voters wouldn't need to brave the elements, or be sidelined by sick kids or conflicting work schedules, to go stand in line at a polling place. Instead, they could sit at their kitchen tables, carefully pondering all the candidates to decide who they think might be best, good enough -- or utterly unacceptable -- as our next president.

This column has been updated to correct a reference to Minnesota's 2020 primary being its first. The state held primaries in 1916, 1952, 1956 and 1992.

A Senior Fellow the Center for Public Service at Portland State University's Hatfield School of Government
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