The era of millennial elections could mark the end of binary voting
We are about to witness a political turning of the tide. After three decades in power, the era of baby boomer politics is coming to an end, and millennials are set to become the new largest bloc of voters.
The differences between millennials and their predecessors on social issues and climate change have long been fodder for commentators and pundits. But perhaps even more consequential will be the reforms the next generation makes to the bedrock institution of our country: our elections.
Each new generation has shifted the way America conducts its elections. Baby boomers, who came of age in an era marked by the Civil Rights Movement and the proliferation of primary elections, successfully lowered the voting age to 18. Generation X subsequently piggybacked off the anti-establishment strains of the boomers and pushed for campaign finance reform and term limits, albeit with mixed success.
Now the millennials will have an opportunity to make their mark.
With previous generations doing much of the heavy lifting on who can vote, the next major shift may come in the form of how we vote. While some next-gen reforms, like online voting, just aren’t ready for widespread adoption, two election reforms are poised to make a substantial impact in the near future: blanket primaries and instant-runoff elections.
Blanket primaries, also known as “jungle primaries,” place all candidates on one primary ballot — regardless of party affiliation — and ask voters to select from among them. The top candidates then move on to the general election. Blanket primaries won’t eliminate our country’s partisan animosity, but they may help reduce the influence of hyper-partisan base voters and open the primary process to millions of unaffiliated voters. With that in mind, a number of states have implemented blanket primaries in recent years, and more could be on the way with states like Wisconsin and Nevada considering the idea.
Meanwhile, instant-runoff elections, often referred to as “ranked-choice voting,” ask voters to rank candidates by personal preference. Vote counters then use these rankings to conduct an immediate runoff election until one candidate wins with majority support. Instant-runoff elections eliminate the “spoiler effect” and allow voters to support their favorite candidate, without fear of “throwing away their vote.” This, in turn, encourages candidates to run positive campaigns in which they must make the case to voters for why they should be ranked at the top of their ballots. Maine first employed instant runoffs in 2018, and a number of localities have started using them as well. Alaska recently passed a similar reform and will use instant-runoff elections in conjunction with blanket primaries starting this year.
Blanket primaries and instant runoffs are intended to shake up our calcified two-party system and provide an opportunity for consensus candidates to emerge. Perhaps it’s no surprise that millennials, who are far less attached to the two major parties, are the most open to these reforms. Look no further than last year’s instant-runoff primary election in New York City. While every age group showed strong support for instant runoffs, voters younger than age 40 were the most enthusiastic, with 86 percent expressing a desire to continue ranking candidates in future elections.
All of this implies that millennials are unlikely to be swayed by arguments that we are better off with the “binary choices” of the existing two-party system.
As baby boomers age out of the political system, millennials are looking to reshape our country, from work to family to civic life. Reforming our elections, with blanket primaries and instant runoffs, may be among the most consequential changes brought by the next generation. Only time will tell.
Matthew Germer is a resident elections fellow at the R Street Institute, a center-right think tank. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattgermer.
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