Unorthodox Results in Iowa Primaries Make the Case for Ranked Choice Voting

by Anthony Ramicone // Published June 5, 2014



On Tuesday, June 3rd, eight states held primary elections for the 2014 congressional elections. Though we will have more to say about these primaries, contests in two congressional districts in Iowa stand out as reasons for more jurisdictions to look to ranked choice voting to avoid unorthodox results.

Though the Republican primary for U.S. Senator was perhaps the prominent race on the ballot, with Senator Joni Ernst receiving national attention regarding her unusual advertisements, it was Iowa congressional districts 1 and 3 that highlight the problems of plurality voting in primary elections.

In the race for Iowa'as CD-1, the seat that Representative Braley is relinquishing to run for Senate, a packed field of Democrats fought to win the nomination for the Democratic-leaning seat – one that FairVote's Monopoly Politics report categorizes as 54.9% Democratic, which is more Democratic than any seat held by a Republican in Congress. The winner was former Speaker of the Iowa House Pat Murphy, who won a paltry 36.7% of the vote.

Since the district favors Democrats, the winner of the Democratic primary is likely to win in the general election as well. This means that in a district that has 487,344 active registered voters, the winner received a mere 10,171 votes. In other words, a candidate endorsed by 2% of registered voters in his district may have just been effectively elected to Congress.

An even stranger outcome was produced by the Republican primary for IA-3, a district that some consider to be a toss-up. Six candidates ran to replace retiring GOP Member of Congress Tom Latham. The leading candidate, State Senator Brad Zaun, received only 24.6% of the vote, with runners-up Robert Cramer and Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz winning 21.2% and 20.1% respectively. Since no one achieved the requisite 35% of the vote to advance to the general election, Iowa law establishes that the winner will be decided by a party convention. Drake University political scientist Dennis Goldford noted to the Des Moines Register that conventions are an “even smaller group and even more ideological and activist than the people who show up for a primary.”

Both of the seemingly undemocratic scenarios that are playing out in Iowa’s 1st and 3rd districts have reform solutions. If Iowa were to use ranked choice voting, races such as these would end with one candidate receiving support from a majority of voters. Based on voters ranking candidates in order of choice, ranked choice voting can be used in different ways. One  "instant runoff" approach would be to use it in such primary contests, with round of counting taking place until one candidate earns a majority against the remaining candidates without having to hold a separate runoff.  Had voters in Iowa been able to ranked their preferences, we would know which candidates they truly preferred, rather than nominating candidates with paltry pluralities or handing the decision to party conventions. (More ambitious variations of ranked choice voting that give voters even more power  include the Top Four Primary system and fair representation voting.)

Of course, as is all too common in elections, most of the races were fairly uneventful, with many candidates running unopposed. Full results from all Iowa primaries can be viewed here.