New Hampshire considers ranked-choice voting for primary

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire voters wouldn’t have to pick just one candidate in the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary next year if lawmakers pass a bill to create a ranked-choice voting system.

Such systems allow voters to rank candidates from first to last on their ballots. If no candidate wins a majority, last-place candidates are eliminated and their votes are reallocated until there’s a majority winner.

Maine became the first state to conduct a federal general election using ranked-choice voting in November, and bills have been introduced in several other states this year, including Massachusetts, Connecticut, Hawaii and Wyoming.

But while Maine’s system is used only in federal races and statewide primary elections, the bill under consideration in New Hampshire would apply to all state and federal elections, including the governor’s race, legislative races and the presidential primary.

The sponsor, state Rep. Ellen Read, told the House Election Law Committee on Wednesday that the current system is a driving force in the polarization of politics and leaves too many people feeling like their votes don’t count, particularly those who support independent or third-party candidates but feel forced into voting for Democrats or Republicans.

“People cannot vote their conscience because they have to be strategic about voting, because of this thing we call the spoiler effect,” she said. “This why people are apathetic about voting. They feel that their vote doesn’t matter.”

Read, a Democrat from Newmarket, cited the 2016 presidential contest as the prime example.

“Most people were voting not for their candidate but against the other candidate,” she said.

Though each round of vote reallocation would be done electronically, New Hampshire’s presidential primary illustrates the complexities of such a system. The 2016 primaries featured 30 Republican candidates and 28 Democrats. Trump won the GOP primary with about 35 percent of the vote. More than a dozen candidates got fewer than 100 votes. Under a ranked-choice system, the last-place finisher’s five votes would have been re-allocated to those voters’ second favorite candidates, and so on.

Some members of the committee were skeptical of the proposal. Rep. Katherine Prudhomme-O’Brien, R-Derry, said ranked-choice voting sounded “like a numbers shell game,” and pushed back against Read’s claim that the current system hurts third-party candidates even when “everyone loves them.”

“If everyone loved them, wouldn’t they get 100 percent of the vote?” she said.

In Maine, Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin lost his seat to Democrat Jared Golden in November. Golden received fewer votes than Poliquin in the first vote-counting round, but pulled ahead when two other candidates were eliminated and second-choice ballots were later counted.