Wisconsin went wrong, Wyoming got it right: Lessons from two primaries

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When Joe Biden captured the Wyoming primary on Sunday, besting Bernie Sanders almost 3-to-1, the results themselves weren’t all that interesting. The former vice president, after all, established himself as the Democrats’ presumptive nominee even before Sanders departed the race earlier this month.

The real news is that in the middle of a pandemic, Wyoming was able to hold its Democratic primary at all, quietly and without outrage.

As the coronavirus pandemic spread nationwide, 16 states declared in-person voting to be a public health danger and postponed primaries and other elections, punting races into June or even mid-summer. Wisconsin, meanwhile, moved ahead with in-person balloting two weeks ago, sparking controversy and appeals all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

So what made Wyoming different? And what can we learn from this success as states look ahead to safeguarding November’s elections fewer than 200 days from now?

In Wyoming, as well as Alaska earlier in April, the move to early voting plus ranked-choice voting (RCV) essentially made these contests pandemic-proof. Officials simply canceled the in-person voting provisions, added more in-person drop-off stations, and extended mail-in deadlines. As a result, everything ran smoothly. There were no scary images of long lines and Americans voting in masks. The Supreme Court did not have to weigh in. 

The result was just what parties want from a primary. Wyoming party chair Joe Barbuto summarized it well: “This record-setting rate of participation speaks to the enthusiasm among Democratic voters about this election and the benefits of ranked choice voting and voting by mail.”

Hawaii’s primary appears similarly resilient. Officials there gave voters a little more time with mail-in ballots, given the longer distances mail must travel to and from Hawaii, pushing deadlines into May. Kansas looks to be in an even stronger position. Democrats there took the ambitious step of mailing a ballot to every registered Democrat this spring — more than 400,000 in all. Voters will be ready to go, and turnout likely will increase more than 10 times from its 2016 caucuses.

It’s not that election officials in those four states predicted a pandemic. They simply wanted to create elections that gave voters more choices and a greater voice. But their careful planning also established something resilient enough to withstand an unprecedented national shutdown.

As a result, Democratic voters in Wyoming will get a say for their party’s nominee. That’s something Democrats in Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and several other states might not have at all.

This isn’t just an academic question. Biden has the nomination locked down. But what if the race were contested? And what about the fall elections? It’s hard to find reasons for optimism by looking around the nation. In several states, including Indiana, Idaho and Georgia, overwhelmed state governments and election officials have struggled to determine who should receive an absentee ballot, and whether or not one needs to be requested or simply can be mailed to registered voters. 

Kansas figured this out ahead of time and preemptively ensured its voting rolls were up to date. Wyoming, Alaska and Hawaii did as well, before canceling in-person voting opportunities and extending deadlines to vote by mail. No one needed to risk catching a deadly virus in order to exercise their right to vote.

Again, none of these officials had some electoral Magic 8-Ball. But one thing everyone saw coming was a Democratic field that at times surpassed two dozen candidates. The mail-in ballot made it easy for voters, which is why every voter should be sent an absentee ballot application this year to give them the chance to vote that way.

The RCV ballot gave those voters more power. RCV allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, ensuring that a winner has majority support. It puts an end to guessing about electability and allows citizens to crowdsource the answer. Everyone can vote for the candidate they want to win, without worrying that, with a fractured field, their vote might help anoint someone from the ideological lane they prefer least. 

RCV solves another problem as well: Wasted votes cast for candidates such as former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and others who withdrew before the official primary date — and sometimes just hours before election day in states where early voting was under way. Already this year, close to 2.5 million “wasted votes” have been cast in support of zombie candidates; that’s nearly one out of every 10. RCV takes that number down to none simply by allowing voters to indicate backup choices. It’s simply a much better way to conduct early voting. 

Wyoming planned ahead and got it right. Wisconsin voters risked their lives to make their voices heard. And citizens in many other states may not get a voice at all in their party’s primary process. As election officials scramble to safeguard November’s elections, and Americans worry about voting amidst the coronavirus, every state should follow Wyoming’s lead.

Rob Richie is president and CEO of FairVote. He is co-author of “Every Vote Equal” and “Whose Votes Count?” Follow him on Twitter @Rob_Richie.

David Daley is a senior fellow at FairVote and the author of “Unrigged: How Americans are Battling Back to Save Democracy.” Follow him on Twitter @davedaley3.

Tags Absentee ballot Amy Klobuchar Bernie Sanders COVID-19 Electoral systems Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden Pete Buttigieg Postal voting Ranked choice voting

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