When voters in Connecticut’s fifth district selected Jahana Hayes as the Democratic nominee for Congress on Tuesday, they opened the door for history: If Hayes wins this fall, she’ll not only become the first African-American Democrat to represent the state in the U.S. House, but also the first black woman from all of New England.
There was also a modern first among Republicans, where five candidates crowded a primary ballot for governor, all sensing that the state’s fiscal nightmare represented an opportunity for the GOP, and for a political outsider, to flip a blue state red. The unusually packed field, including a big city mayor, a first selectman and several successful businessmen, did provide GOP primary voters a wide range of competing backgrounds, approaches and ideologies.
Unfortunately, five strong candidates also resulted in a nominee, investment banker and former GE executive, Bob Stefanowski who earned less than 30 percent of the vote. Stefanowski soundly bested Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton and the rest of the GOP field. But he earned just over 42,000 total votes. There are more than 480,000 registered Republicans in the state. Stefanowski moves onto the general election despite being the first choice of fewer than one in 10.
Stefanowski’s total number of votes, as well as his overall percentage, are the lowest for any nominee in modern times — and by a considerable amount. In 1986, Julie Belaga won a three-way race, but still captured 41.3 percent of GOP voters. In 2010, Thomas Foley won another plurality race, but with just over 47 percent.
It doesn’t have to be this way — and these results ought to encourage a fresh look at electoral reforms that produce winners with true majority support. First among them would be ranked choice voting (RCV). Maine voters, plagued by similar plurality elections in governors’ races going back to the 1970s, officially adopted RCV this spring for all federal offices and all primary elections for state and federal offices. Secretary of State Denise Merrill recently told the New Haven Independent that she finds the concept interesting.
As Maine has demonstrated, RCV is easy to use — and puts real power back in the hands of voters. The mechanics are simple and mimic a runoff election: If one candidate has a majority after the first round, he or she wins. But if no one has more than 50 percent, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and those votes are instantly reallocated to the voters’ second choice. The “instant runoff” continues until someone crosses 50 percent. Today’s voting technology allows this to happen quickly and without fear of hacking.
In last week’s GOP primary, for example, Steve Obsitnik, Tim Herbst and David Stemerman would have been eliminated after the first three rounds. Their supporters would have been redistributed to their second or third choice candidates, setting up a final round with Stefanowski vs Boughton.
Stefanowski might very well have won. After all, the three outsider business candidates collected approximately 60 percent of the vote, and the two veteran politicos mustered just 40 percent. The power of RCV, however, is that it ends with a real majority consensus. An extreme “base candidate” can’t swipe a nomination in a five-person race.
It helps eliminate the spoiler effect, especially in a deep field, in which supporters of Tim Herbst or David Stemerman, for example, feel compelled to vote for a different candidate, rather than casting a vote for their first choice that they worry will elect the nominee they like least. The GOP primary might also have been a lot more civil and substantive; convincing studies show that politicians fighting for second and third place votes tend to run more inclusive and less negative races.
RCV elections also produce nominees with real momentum and party unity. Primaries give voters the power to determine their party’s nominee, and well they should. But more than 70 percent of Republicans preferred someone other than Stefanowski as their first choice. A little over 40,000 people helped determine the choice all Connecticut voters will face in the fall.
Our elections would offer more meaningful and representative choices if we conducted them with a different system. Indeed, with independent Oz Griebel on the ballot this fall, the governor-elect may win with mere plurality support as well. The solution is not limiting voter choice, but creating a system that rewards that choice, and generates real consensus.
After all, this November, it is likely that either Democratic nominee Ned Lamont or Stefanowski will be charged with finding a solution to Connecticut’s fiscal problems, uniting fractious political parties, building legislative consensus, and convincing the public that near-term pain will create shared long-term prosperity. Their solutions are more likely to be accepted — and to stick — if a majority of the people are behind them.
Instead, the campaign opened with a cavalcade of Twitter insults. “Bob Trumpanowski,” tweeted Lamont. “Ned Malloy,” retorted Stefanowski. We can do so much better.
Ranked choice voting would go a long ways to giving us all the elections — and the choices — that we deserve, and that these times demand.
David Daley, former publisher of The Connecticut Mirror, is the author of “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” (Norton) and a senior fellow at FairVote.