Opinion

An accidental ranked-choice endorsement from The New York Times

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The editorial board of The New York Times thought it was endorsing its preferred candidates in the Democratic primary for president this week.

 

Instead, what the writers actually endorsed was ranked-choice voting.

 

For a little background, The New York Times — one of the most important and influential newspapers in the country — endorsed two candidates for the Democratic nomination for president: U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren.

 

The endorsement came after a reality show rollout, which featured videos of the candidates who met with the paper’s editorial board, a podcast explainer of the process and an explanation of what the editorial board is and who is on it.

 

For some observers, and particularly fans of candidates who didn’t earn the endorsement, it was all a bit much — a little too self-important, a little too showy.

 

Endorsing two candidates is unorthodox, for sure. 

 

But I understand the conundrum the editorial board faced. There are a number of strong candidates in the field.

 

The differences between the candidates in the primary, despite the necessary fighting during the campaign that exaggerates those differences, are relatively small, especially compared to the collective differences between the Democratic field and President Donald Trump.

 

“Nearly any of them would be the most progressive president in decades on issues like health care, the economy and government’s allocations of resources,” the Times editorial board wrote. “Where they differ most significantly is not the what but the how, in whether they believe in the country’s institutions and norms are up to the challenge of the moment.”

 

They called Klobuchar a “realist” and Warren a “radical” and said that both approaches deserve consideration from primary voters, who are most concerned with figuring out the best person to defeat Trump in November.

 

In addition to the two candidates who earned the endorsement, the paper also had nice things to say about several other candidates.

 

And that’s why I think that The New York Times really endorsed ranked-choice voting, even if it wasn’t their intent.

 

If the goal of the Democratic Party is to defeat Trump — and it most assuredly is — then the puzzle for voters is to determine which of the candidates is best suited for the job.

 

In a large field of candidates, the person who would have the best chance for victory is the person who can not only capture the most first-place votes, but also build a coalition of supporters from the ranks of their current opponents.

 

In November, Maine will be the first state in the country to use ranked-choice voting in a presidential election. (Disclosure: I worked in support of the law to make that happen.)

 

Unfortunately, when Democratic voters go to the polls on March 3 they will not be able to rank their choices in the primary. Unlike The New York Times, they will be forced to pick one candidate and only one.

 

To be fair, the Times has also explicitly endorsed ranked-choice voting, including in Maine.

 

“Ranked-choice voting is a smart, tested reform that would make sure that New Yorkers elect candidates who have the support of a majority of voters,” the editorial board wrote in October 2019.

 

Every election year, newspaper editorial boards are pushed — by some readers, disgruntled candidates and even their own newsroom, which are run separately from the opinion section — to stop writing endorsement editorials.

 

I hope that they don’t listen. Editorial endorsements provide voters with more information about candidates and an independent, if subjective, view of their strengths and weakness. They are valuable even if the advice is ignored when voters head to the voting booth.

 

And, in this case, The New York Times endorsement is valuable for the reform it endorses even if accidentally. Modern elections, with crowded fields, work better when voters have more choice and a louder voice, not less.

 

David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s 2014 campaign for governor.

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