In 1964, only 568 people lived in one legislative district in Nevada, while approximately 127,000 lived in another. Idaho had a similar gap in voting power, with 969 people in the smallest district and 93,400 in the largest.
These types of differences in the power to choose state legislators led to the United Supreme Court decision in Reynold v. Sims, explaining that such unfair voting power violated the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution. The Court held that the effect of each vote should be nearly the same and ordered states to redistrict so that the number of people allowed to vote for each office was roughly equal.
In his majority opinion, Chief Justice Warren wrote, “the right of suffrage can be denied by a debasement or dilution of the weight of a citizen’s vote just as effectively as by wholly prohibiting the free exercise of the franchise.” This means that when one person’s vote counts for less than another person’s, it is as bad for democracy as just blocking a person from voting. In common talk, the rule that each person’s vote should carry equal weight is called: “one person, one vote.”
Today, in Idaho, every person’s vote does not carry equal weight. Idaho is a very Republican state. In every statewide election, whoever wins the Republican primary wins the general election. The Republican primary is closed to all but the party faithful. As former long-time Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa put it, “the whole ballgame’s in the primary.”
In the 2022 primary, only 32.4% of the Idaho’s voters turned out to vote. When it takes only about a third of the Republican party primary voters to guarantee a win for a candidate in the general election, it’s clear that the votes of others do not count as much as that one-third of the Republican Party.
This unfair difference in the worth of each vote is becoming worse because the Republican party recently adopted a rule to limit party crossover from Democrats and Independents who try to join the Republican primary to make their votes count.
There is a new move afoot in Idaho to restore the equal worth of each voter’s ballot in line with one person, one vote. That is a voter initiative for an open election process called top-four, ranked-choice voting. Anyone, regardless of party, can run in the primary election and every voter can select among them. The top 4 go on the general election ballot, where each voter ranks his or her choices in order of preference — 1,2,3,4.
The candidate who gets a majority in the general is elected. If no one gets a majority, the candidate receiving the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated and the votes of those who made that candidate their first choice then go to their second-choice candidate in a second count. If a candidate gets a majority in the second count, they win. If not, the process repeats until a candidate gets a majority.
If a voter’s first choice does not win, their second choice might.
What would ranked-choice voting mean for Idaho? It would require candidates to temper extremist positions because 32.4% of the Republican Party can no longer guarantee a win and control who is in office.
A candidate must appeal to other voters to capture number 1 and number 2 positions on ballots and reach a 50% majority vote. To appeal to these needed voters requires a moderation of extremist positions that now appeal to only the Republican Primary voters. It requires an outreach to most voters in Idaho.
The ultimate result will be more tempered and moderate politics. We will be electing candidates less focused on the cultural issues driving doctors out of state, harassing librarians, and losing expensive lawsuits. Instead, candidates will focus on residential property tax relief, economic development, roads and bridges, and education.
Beneficiaries of the Republican Party’s lock on Idaho offices frantically oppose ranked-choice voting, arguing it is a recount of votes, it will detract from a voter’s first choice, or it offers too many candidates. Not hardly.
Every vote is counted only once. No one has a first-choice guarantee in any election of any type. And in the 2022 Idaho primaries, Republican and Democrat combined, there were 9 candidates. We seemed to have survived.
Perhaps the dizziest argument against ranked-choice voting comes from Republican Party Chairwoman Dorothy Moon, who opines ranked-choice voting violates the “one man, one vote” rule. As the Reynolds case guides us to know, the Equal Protection Clause and the “one man, one vote” rule require equal voting power.
What ranked-choice voting will do is rebalance and make equal the “weight of each citizen’s vote” as Chief Justice Warren put it, and as “one man, one vote” requires.
Tom Arkoosh is a lawyer. He was the Democratic nominee for attorney general in 2022.