In the 2016 Arizona Republican Party Primary, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who is no longer in the race, received more votes than Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is still in the race. In addition, Dr. Ben Carson, who has also dropped out, received over 14,000 votes. This was largely due to Arizona’s early voting laws, which allows ballots to be sent out to voters around one month before the day of the primary.
The issue, however, is not that early voting exists. The lines are long enough on election day, and the last thing people want to do after a long day at work is to stand in line for over 2 hours, as many had to do on Tuesday. No, the issue, rather, is that States use the same voting method for both early and day-of balloting. This system, first-past-the-post, is familiar to most Americans, one vote for one candidate and the candidate with the most votes wins it all.
Usually, there is not an issue with this method, people know who they want to vote for and can vote for whomever they like, even if their candidate has no chance of winning the seat or the delegates. However, when we factor in that people are voting before election day, it’s highly probable that those voters would vote for their most-preferred candidate in the race at the time, but once that candidate has dropped out, they cannot go back and change their ballot.
States can adopt an instant-runoff voting system to correct this issue. To win in an instant-runoff system, a candidate must win 50% plus one of the total number votes cast. In general elections, this normally happens anyway when there are only two major candidates, but this is rarely the case in primaries.
When delegate-rich states like Arizona, Ohio, and Florida wish to allocate all of their delegates to the candidate who receives the most votes, there should be some safeguard in place that the winner is actually the most preferred candidate. To achieve this, voters in these States would rank each of the candidates on the ballot, a 1 being their most-preferred and continue on down the line until each candidate is ranked in terms of preference. On the first ballot, if one candidate receives the requisite number of votes, the election is over. But if no candidate receives the requisite number, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and the ballots cast for the least-preferred candidate would be reallocated to the voter’s 2nd most preferred candidate. This will continue until one candidate receives the requisite 50% plus one total number of votes.
This system, along with light modification, would solve two issues at once.
One, early votes cast for candidates no longer in the race could be automatically reallocated to those still in the race on the “second ballot,” and ensure that early ballots are not wasted. The second issue resolved is that in races with multiple candidates, instant-runoff ensures that whoever receives the state’s delegates is truly that states most preferred candidate.
Some would argue that, to use the most relevant example, Trump won so many votes on the first ballot in Arizona that to bother with a second ballot is irrelevant as he likely would’ve receive 50% plus one in the next round anyway. This is not necessarily true. Under the current system, voters have almost no way to express that they do not prefer a particular candidate, they can only express their desire for the one they would prefer first. This does not mean that simply because Candidate A wins the most on the first ballot that his or her plurality would hold or improve on the second or third ballots, indeed, their total may very well remain stagnate. Under the instant-runoff system, the winner would be the candidate most preferred by all voters, even if he or she did not win until the second or third ballot. With Trump’s tally as large as it was on the first ballot in Arizona, it probably would not have made much of a difference this time around, but in the future it would make these States much more competitive.
There is no chance of changing voting methods in the 2016 election cycle, but the 2020 cycle could be the testing ground for this system, assuming Republicans have the horde of candidates in 2020 as they did at the start of the 2016 cycle.
Note: At the time of publication, 90% of precincts in Arizona had reported, according to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office.