19 October 2017 — 1447 mdt
A 6-candidate primary is fine — but only with instant runoff voting
Montana’s Democratic primary for the U.S. House is getting crowded. John Heenan, Grant Kier, and State Rep. Tom Woods have announced they’re running and have begun campaigning. Former Billings State Sen. Lynda Moss is hiring campaign staff, reports Nathan Kosted in a nicely researched post at The Montana Post. Kosted also reports that former Butte State Rep. Pat Noonan may throw his hat in the ring. And Logicosity reports that former Bozeman State Rep. Kathleen Williams, an expert on water issues, may run. That’s six — and there could be more.
All of these candidates and potential candidates are outstanding people who would serve Montana well in the U.S. House. Moreover, the also-rans will have learned how to run a statewide campaign, a valuable skill that will help them if they run for statewide office in 2020.
Because winning requires only a plurality, in theory the nomination could go to someone with just 17 percent of the vote. In practice, the winner probably will receive 25–35 percent of the vote, which is better but hardly a mandate. A candidate who wins with one-third of the vote is a candidate that two-thirds of the voters wanted to lose.
None of these candidates and potential candidates has a statewide constituency. Heenan and Kier are running for elective office for the first time. Except for Noonan, the others are experienced legislators with local constituencies. Noonan, also an experienced legislator, may have a developed a regional constituency when he ran for the Public Service commission last year. Consequently, geographic identity voting will be an important factor in the primary. So will gender identity voting, especially if only one woman runs. (Gender identity voting is now a major factor in all Democratic primaries, and can produce losers like Massachusetts’ Martha Coakley.)
Because a first past the post voting system that rewards identity voting (the curse of the Democratic Party), the candidate who wins the primary may not be the strongest candidate the Democrats could have nominated.
There’s always a risk that an outlier will win a crowded first past the post election. Indeed, an outlier’s prevailing remains a risk even if winning requires a majority — think Luther Strange and Roy Moore — as William Poundstone observed, no election system is perfect — but the risk is lower if a runoff is required. Replacing a first past the post elections with an instant runoff election, a system already used in the U.S., is the fairest and most efficient option available.