As the dust settled after the 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary election, Secretary of State Kris Kobach defeated incumbent Gov. Jeff Colyer by 350 votes, of 128,838 total votes (40.6%). Lagging far behind were moderate Jim Barnett (8.8%), Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer (7.8%), and three other candidates, who garnered 2.2% of the vote.
In assessing the results, Republican political pros were despondent and Democrats gleeful. Republicans had nominated the candidate who was, by far, the most likely to lose the general election to Democrat Laura Kelly. Indeed, that is exactly what happened, as Kobach extreme’s conservatism turned off many Republicans and independents in the November contest.
It is a truism that the rules often help determine who wins a contest. Political scientists have long understood that rules are never neutral. But there are ways to produce better outcomes than Kobach’s 2018 candidacy.
Most notably, Republicans could have used ranked choice voting (RCV) to determine the primary winner, with voters ranking the candidates in order of their preference. If no candidate receives a clear majority (50 percent), the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated, and his or her votes are distributed to the voters' second-place choices. This continues until a winner is receives a majority in an “instant runoff.”
In 2018, Gov. Colyer would almost certainly have emerged as the winner, since the trailing candidate with the largest cache of votes, Jim Barnett, would have had his tallies go overwhelmingly to Colyer, as would have a fair number of Selzer’s.
The benefits of RCV are numerous, but let’s consider just two. First, Republicans would have put forward their strongest candidate. Second, those voters who supported either Barnett or Selzer could have made a sincere first vote choice, backed up with a strategic second choice.
Nor is the Kobach example singular in Kansas GOP politics. In 2018, newcomer Steve Watkins won the 2nd District Republican nomination with 26.5 percent (20,052) of all votes. RCV procedures would have likely given the nomination to one of his establishment GOP challengers, as most Republican voters viewed Watkins as unqualified. Still, with just a quarter of the primary vote, he won the right to run (and narrowly win) as a Republican in the general election.
A similar scenario propelled Tim Huelskamp into office in the 1st District in 2010, when the ultra-conservative state senator won the nomination with less than 35 percent of the vote. His election in this traditionally Republican seat led to three terms of controversy, before Roger Marshall unseated him in the 2016 primary.
Next spring, Kansas Democrats will use RCV in their May presidential primary; by then, several candidates will have dropped out. The system might be best employed when a large number of candidates remain in the race. Still, it’s a step in the right direction.
Across the nation, many cities have adopted RCV, and Maine has used it in a general election. Indeed, the Maine results demonstrate the impact of RCV, as the Democratic challenger in the 2nd congressional district trailed the Republican incumbent by 2,171 votes, only to emerge victorious by 3,519 votes when two independent candidates’ second-choice votes were redistributed.
A majority candidate thus won election, and more than 16,000 independents did not “waste” their votes.
As we worry about legitimacy, representation and participation, ranked choice voting is fast becoming a highly attractive option to encourage voting by all factions while producing majority victors.
A win-win situation for parties and voters.
Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.