West Virginia’s godawful GOP primary exposed our massively broken electoral system: Let’s fix it | Spanlish


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Friday, May 18, 2018

West Virginia’s godawful GOP primary exposed our massively broken electoral system: Let’s fix it

Getty/Toya Sarno Jordan/Jeff Swensen

Getty/Toya Sarno Jordan/Jeff Swensen

West Virginia’s wild three-way Republican primary for the U.S. Senate captured the nation’s attention last week, and for good reason.

Late polls showed coal baron Don Blankenship — who spent a year in prison, jailed after a 2010 explosion at one of his mines killed 29 workers — surging ahead of his main opponents, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Evan Jenkins.

Things turned nasty when Blankenship launched TV ads that derided Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as “Cocaine Mitch” and relatives of his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, as his “China family.” That went too far even for President Trump, who took to Twitter and urged the state’s Republican voters to select a nominee with a better chance of winning statewide this fall.

It worked: Blankenship ultimately garnered only 20 percent of the vote and crumbled into third place. But while relieved Republicans avoided nominating a man held responsible for the deaths of miners in a coal state, Morrisey squeezed out a narrow victory over Jenkins with just 35 percent of the vote. That means the GOP nominee was the first choice of slightly more than a third of his own party's voters.

None of this was necessary. Not the vitriol. Not the last-minute presidential tweets. Not the panicked national Republican leaders openly plotting to distance themselves from the nominee for a winnable Senate seat that could determine control of the entire chamber. And especially not a victor who fell far short of majority support.

Ranked choice voting (RCV) would have solved all of those dilemmas. After all, most West Virginia Republicans overwhelmingly favored one of the two congressmen. Morrisey and Jenkins collected nearly 70 percent of the vote between them. Yet even the White House feared that an ex-convict might emerge from the primary over the opposition of an overwhelming majority of his own party.

History will be made next month in Maine — where in nine of the last 11 races for governor, dating back to 1974, the winner earned fewer than 50 percent of the votes — when the state will use RCV to select its major-party nominees for governor and Congress. A SurveyUSA poll, as reported by the Bangor Daily News, showed that RCV can turn non-majority races in both major party primaries into majority winners.

It works quite simply: If one candidate has a majority after the first round, he or she wins. But if no one has more than 50 percent, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and those votes are instantly redistributed to the voters’ second choice. The “instant runoff” process continues until someone has a genuine majority.

Imagine how much fairer and more civil this election — and other primaries over the last two weeks in Pennsylvania, Idaho, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio and Indiana — would have been if everyone had that right. Had those West Virginia voters been able to rank their choices — either Morrisey or Jenkins first, and the other second — the Blankenship scare essentially wouldn't have happened at all. In a multi-candidate race under RCV, every voter gets heard — but the candidate with the widest support wins.

Democracy wins: Everyone gets to run, no one plays the spoiler, all voices get heard and voters need not compute an elaborate “electability” algorithm. Most importantly, the winner is someone a majority of a given party's voters can actually support, not an outlier who may appeal to a fanatical plurality of the base.

Indeed, West Virginia’s U.S. Senate primary wasn’t even the most egregiously anti-majoritarian outcome that night statewide.

In the state’s 3rd congressional district, Carol Miller will be the Republican nominee. She outpaced a seven-candidate field — and won with a staggeringly low 23.8 percent. Miller got fewer than 9,000 votes and earned the support of less than a quarter of her party. Yet she is extremely likely to go to Washington in January to represent a district that re-elected the Republican incumbent in 2016 with two-thirds of the vote.

In North Carolina, meanwhile, incumbent Walter Jones will once again be the Republican nominee in that state's 3rd congressional district, even though 57 percent of Republican voters would have preferred another candidate. Jones won just 43 percent of the vote on Tuesday but will be the GOP standard-bearer this fall nevertheless.

A similar story unfolded in Indiana’s Republican Senate primary, where two GOP House members won more than 60 percent of the vote — but lost to businessman Mike Braun, who had voted in Democratic primaries through 2012. Meanwhile, six of the major-party winners in Indiana’s U.S. House primaries on Tuesday claimed victory with less than 40 percent of the vote.

We can fix this. Ranked choice voting has improved elections in Australia and many other countries and has been enacted in more than a dozen cities nationwide, including San Francisco, Minneapolis and St. Paul. It has been credited with more civil and less negative campaigns, as candidates eagerly seek to look beyond their base. At a time when many more people have been inspired to run for office, and when so many uncompetitive and often gerrymandered districts mean that the winners of low-turnout primaries can frequently coast to victory in the general election, we need nominees with majority support more than ever.

Republicans from the White House on down exhaled when Blankenship went down to defeat in West Virginia, but let’s not pretend the system worked. Think about it: The state’s U.S. Senate nominee could well have been an ex-convict. The likely next member of Congress in one West Virginia district was the choice of fewer than 9,000 people. How low must we go — in total votes, percentages or simple human civility — before recognizing that our elections are broken and it’s time for change?

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