Bloody Kansas Primary Proves Why We Need Ranked Choice Voting
Party infighting made this Senate seat vulnerable for the first time in 80 years. It didn't have to be that way.
Kansas Republicans finally have their nominee for the U.S. Senate. As much of the party establishment hoped, U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall defeated former secretary of state Kris Kobach and two other contenders on Tuesday and will square off against state senator Barbara Bollier this fall. Marshall won just 40 percent of the vote, but finished ahead of Kobach’s 26 percent in second place.
It only took millions of dollars in TV attack ads, months of bitter intra-party finger pointing and strife, and so much heartburn that even the makers of Tums wanted the race to be over.
Meanwhile, as Republicans squandered dollars and fought amongst themselves, Bollier had the spotlight to herself and weeks to define herself as she looks to swipe a seat that the GOP has held uninterrupted for more than 80 years.
All of this could have been avoided. If Kansas Republicans simply used ranked choice voting, the GOP would have had an easy and proven method to determine the candidate with the most support from a crowded field. They would have saved money. No one would need to be concerned about a divisive plurality winner losing the general election in November.
And it would be easier to unify for the fall, as every candidate would have made the best case for themselves, rather than casting opponents as spoilers and telling GOP primary goers that they were wasting their vote.
This extraordinarily negative race turned nasty in April when state party chair Mike Kuckelman tried to elbow two of the middle-tier candidates out of the race and clear the way for Marshall and Kobach to go one on one. It didn’t go over well. While former state senate president Susan Wagel did depart in late May, businessman Bob Hamilton (“Send in a plumber to drain the swamp”) and former Kansas City Chiefs football player Dave Lindstrom stayed in the race.
National Republicans, fearful that the controversial Kobach’s base could prove victorious in a crowded primary field, but then cost the party a reliable red seat in the fall, funneled millions into negative TV ads and mailers. They worried about a repeat of 2018, when Kobach narrowly wrestled the party’s nomination for governor away from incumbent Jeff Colyer with just 40.6 percent of the vote, then lost to Democrat Laura Kelly in the fall. That drew the attention of Sens. Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz, who actively lobbied President Trump, unsuccessfully, to endorse Marshall and keep a usually safe seat in GOP hands.
Marshall, meanwhile, directed much of his fire at Hamilton and Lindstrom. One statewide mailer from his campaign, with the words written on an elementary school chalkboard, read “Bob Hamilton + Dave Lindstrom = Kris Kobach.” “Math can be complicated,” it said. “Elections shouldn’t be. A vote for Hamilton or Lindstrom is a vote for Kris Kobach.”
Ranked choice voting would have offered a better answer. All it requires is 1,2,3. Voters sort the field in order. If no one in a crowded field wins 50 percent during the first round, the last place candidates are eliminated and an instant runoff ensues until someone wins a majority. There are no spoilers. Everyone can vote for the candidate they like the most, without worrying that they will elect the person they like least. Best of all, it avoids the harder math calculations that voters have to make whenever there are more than two candidates in a race.
After all, Republicans, like all voters, like choices and want to make up their own minds. More than a quarter of GOP primary voters on Tuesday backed Hamilton or Lindstrom nevertheless. Marshall won with 40.3 percent of the vote and now must spend time unifying Republicans. In his concession speech, Kobach blamed the GOP establishment for “try[ing] to take out a conservative who was threatening to win this race,” and said that $3 million of “withering,” “false” attack ads created a “storm that did its damage, obviously.”
Kansas voters know RCV well. Democrats used it here successfully in the spring during their presidential primary. In other states, Republicans used RCV successfully this year. In Utah, more than 3,000 Republican state convention delegates cast RCV ballots to endorse candidates and winnow fields for Congress and governors. Virginia Republicans used RCV in key congressional contests, including one where the consensus candidate emerged after finishing third in first choices, and will use it to pick their chair this month. At the Republicans’ virtual state convention in Indiana, delegates nominated Todd Rokita over a scandal-plagued incumbent who led in first choices, but lost the instant runoff.
Elections can be messy, expensive and divisive. But party leaders should hate to see that much firepower used against fellow party members. All those attack ads only make political consultants and the big TV stations rich. With ranked choice voting, parties could save all that money—and give the voters the power to decide, instead.
David Daley is the author of Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy and the national best seller Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count. He is a senior fellow at FairVote.