Senate File 145 – Election runoffs proposes to change Wyoming’s primary elections, moving the party primaries back two months from August to May, and allowing for a runoff election in August between the top two finishers if no single candidate receives a majority of the vote.
This is a step in the right direction, but since we’re at it, let’s address the other problem with our state’s primary system, crossover voting. We can do that by adopting Alaska’s method of open primaries and ranked-choice voting.
The first problem with our system is that in a crowded primary, a candidate with support from less than a majority of the voters can prevail. In the 2018 governor’s race, because six viable candidates were on the ballot, Mark Gordon won the Republican nomination with only 33% of the vote. If SF 145 had been in place, Gordon would have faced Foster Friess (who came in second place) in a runoff election.
The bill before the legislature assumes that one of the top two finishers in a crowded primary always represents a majority of the voter’s interests. But in the case of the 2018 governor’s race, we can’t be certain. Third-place finisher Harriet Hageman was only 5,000 votes shy of Friess, while the remaining candidates received more than 23,000 votes collectively. Because we don’t know how many of those 23,000 voters preferred Hageman over Friess, maybe the right match-up should have been between Gordon and Hageman. And with SF 145 alone, we’d never know. Let’s call this the “Hageman Effect.”
The simple solution is to implement ranked-choice voting. The Wyoming Democratic Party used the method in the 2020 presidential caucus and Alaska voters adopted it a few months ago. Today voters in over 20 other states, and countries around the world have adopted RCV. With this system, voters rank their choices in order of preference. In counting the votes, the bottom finisher is eliminated, and voters who had selected that candidate have their votes instead redistributed to their second choice.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it has exactly the same impact as a runoff election. With ranked-choice voting, this happens automatically — the bottom candidate is eliminated and their votes are redistributed among the remaining candidates until one candidate receives a majority of the votes.
Compared to a runoff, however, it’s cheaper (it entails only one election to pay for), easier (voters only have to cast a ballot once) and more representative of voters’ preferences (as it avoids the “Hageman Effect”).
But RCV alone only solves one of the two problems with Wyoming primaries. The second is crossover voting. That happens when voters who are not ideologically affiliated with the Republican Party nonetheless vote in the Republican primary so they can have a voice in the GOP-dominated state.
The most famous crossover voter is Donald Trump, who acknowledged that when he lived in predominantly Democratic New York, he regularly voted in Democratic primaries. Some argue that Mark Gordon won more votes than Friess only because Democrats and unaffiliated voters “crossed over” to vote for him in the Republican primary.
In 2020 Alaska solved for both of Wyoming’s problems by adopting RCV along with open primaries. In an open primary, voters do not have to declare a party affiliation — everyone votes in a single primary, solving the issue of crossover voting. Then, in the system Alaska adopted, the top four finishers advance to the general election, where voters select the candidate who appeals to a majority through RCV.
Had this happened in 2018, Gordon, Friess, Hageman and Democrat Mary Throne would have almost certainly advanced to the general election. Then in the general election, Wyoming voters would have ranked these four candidates using RCV. In essence, it would have created the same effect envisioned in SF 145 without forcing voters to the polls twice and costing the state money, while at the same time avoiding the Hageman Effect.
So what would have happened in the 2018 governor’s race under a system of open primaries and RCV? Using some safe assumptions about the preferences of each voter group, my bet is that the final round of the general election would have been between Gordon and Friess.