The state of Kansas does not sponsor presidential primaries, leaving primary elections up to state parties. This method leaves parties a great deal of flexibility and room for innovation in choosing a method of voting. Political parties must carefully consider election systems and prioritize voter accessibility.
The United States has a long history of first-past-the-post election systems, in which voters choose one candidate and the candidate with the most votes wins. Such systems make participation and tallying simple, but have drawbacks, particularly in elections with more than two candidates. A candidate can win an election even with opposition from a majority of voters, whose votes may be split between opponents. The most extreme candidates can benefit from such a system, over those who speak to broader coalitions of voters.
Primary elections provide a valuable opportunity for voters to experience different election systems.
The Kansas Democratic Party is finalizing plans to use rank choice voting in their 2020 presidential primary, moving away from a caucus system. Caucuses, in which party members gather in one location to learn about candidates and express support, are exciting, and have the advantage of facilitating communication between party members. Caucuses also have drawbacks for voter accessibility. Voters must report at a specific time and location, and remain at the caucus until the process is complete. They are time-consuming and difficult for voters with inflexible work schedules, child care needs or health conditions.
In rank choice voting, voters cast a ballot ranking candidates in order of preference. In the most popular method of tallying, if a candidate receives more than half of the top votes, she is declared the winner. If not, the candidate with the least top votes is eliminated, with her votes redistributed to the other candidates. The process repeats until a candidate gets more than half the top votes, essentially allowing immediate runoffs. The system benefits candidates with the most support. However, rank choice voting is unfamiliar to many American voters, with different methods of tallying having the potential to cause confusion.
The Kansas Democratic Party would be wise to prioritize voter education when moving to such a system, ensuring voters are fully informed about the meaning of each rank, and the implications of failing to rank a candidate.
The Kansas Republican Party also has a history of caucuses but does not have plans to hold one in 2020 in the absence of candidates opposing President Donald Trump. One change Republicans should consider for their next primary is allowing voters to register as Republicans the day of the election, allowing new voters greater accessibility to the process.
In election systems, the way it has been done is not necessarily the best way. Our political parties in Kansas should make good use of the opportunity to choose a new system as they choose new leaders.