By: Austin Plier
Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner announced in early September that he will not run for a 22nd term representing the state’s 5th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. After a more than 40 year run in Congress, Sensenbrenner’s impending departure will create a sizeable opportunity for ambitious Republicans in the solidly red district. As GOP strategist Brian Fraley put it, the opening is “a once-in-a-political-lifetime opportunity for a whole host of candidates,” as it is the “safest Republican seat in the state.”
In the aftermath of Sensenbrenner’s announcement, widespread interest in the seat was immediately apparent among several prominent GOP political figures. Within days, the Wisconsin State Journal identified at least six prospective candidates who expressed serious interest in competing for the seat, including Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, former Sen. Leah Vukmir, and even Matt Walker, the son of former Governor Scott Walker. With plenty of time between now and the primary on April 7, 2020, the list is destined to grow.
While crowded primaries are certainly not rare in American politics, they’re not often ideal for either parties or voters—especially in races where the general election outcome is a foregone conclusion, as is likely in the 5th Congressional District. Wisconsin law dictates that the candidate who receives the most votes in a primary election wins. However, in a crowded and competitive GOP field, this would likely mean that the winner of the primary—who would almost certainly go on to win handily in the general election—could win with far less than a majority of the vote. Should a competitive field emerge, it isn’t hard to imagine a candidate with less than 30% of the vote emerge victorious in the primary, and subsequently coast to an easy victory in the general election.
Plurality results are problematic for two reasons: (1) they often reward divisive campaign tactics, and (2) undermine the goal of identifying a consensus candidate. Instead, primaries like the one that is likely to take place in Wisconsin in April of 2020 would benefit from a proven alternative in ranked choice voting. Ranked choice voting is simple. Voters have the freedom to rank as many candidates as they want in order of preference, from first to last. Everyone’s first choices are counted, and if a candidate has a majority of the vote, they win, just like any other election. However, if nobody has a majority, an “instant runoff” takes place in order to compare the top two candidates head-to-head. Candidates in last place are eliminated, and their backers’ votes are counted for their next choice. When it’s down to two, the winner earns a majority of the vote.
Adopting ranked choice voting accommodates having voter choice in primaries. It’s good for parties, as they are more likely to get a nominee whom voters can rally behind. It’s good for voters, as they can avoid strategic considerations and always vote for their favorite candidate without fear of “wasting their vote” on a “spoiler” candidate who cannot garner enough support to win.
Given the magnitude of the open seat for the Wisconsin GOP, and the prominence of the potential candidates, the Republican Party might also be concerned about the state-wide impact of a nasty, mud-slinging primary contest in which prominent members of the state party attack one-another in the lead-up to a very consequential 2020 general election. Ranked choice voting would also help in this regard. Research from cities using ranked choice voting shows that it does more than just uphold majority rule. In 2013 and 2014, political scientists Todd Donovan and Caroline Tolbert worked with the Rutgers-Eagleton poll to survey more than 4,800 voters in seven cities using ranked choice voting and fourteen “control” cities without it. A majority of voters in every ranked choice voting city supported keeping it, and voters in those cities generally found the campaigns more civil. Former Mayor of Minneapolis Betsy Hodges explained how this manifested itself in practice. She campaigned in a very crowded mayoral race in Minneapolis—which has used ranked choice voting for city elections since 2009: “If you and I are running against one another in ranked choice, I want the second-choice votes of your supporters. So if I’m talking smack about you, it’s not going to go well for me in the ballot box.”
Certainly not every primary will be as crowded as the Republican contest for Wisconsin’s 5th Congressional District. However, the looming chaos that is likely to accompany the GOP primary to replace Jim Sensenbrenner demonstrates the problems with plurality voting in crowded contests, and highlights how ranked choice voting could improve outcomes and strengthen voter choice and power at the ballot box in the state of Wisconsin.