By Marvin Randolph
Black and Latino voters make up nearly 40% of Maryland’s electorate. Yet, zero of the 125 people elected as Maryland’s governor or U.S. Senator have been Black or Latino.
2022 could be the year history is made, or not.
Our Democratic primary for governor has four highly qualified Black and Brown candidates, including two Obama cabinet secretaries, a two-term executive of Maryland’s second-largest county, and a CEO of a national philanthropic organization.
It’s only right that one of them should be nominated: Black and Brown voters carry our state’s Democratic Party: 94% of Black voters voted for Joe Biden in 2020, as did 69% of Latino voters.
This candidate field reflects the large number of talented and ambitious leaders coming out of Black and Brown communities. Yet, under our current voting system, this great candidate field will actually hurt our chances for electing a Black or Brown person as governor.
That’s because of a phenomenon called “vote-splitting,” which happens all the time in crowded elections. Here’s how it works: a majority of voters vote for a Black or Brown candidate, but they split their votes among different candidates. Each individual candidate of color gets limited votes – say 10 or 20 or even 30%.
Meanwhile, a White candidate gets more votes than each candidate of color gets on their own. The White candidate wins the election, even though a majority of voters chose a Black or Brown candidate.
In Maryland’s race for governor, vote-splitting is sure to decrease the Democratic Party’s chances of nominating a person of color. In other cases, vote-splitting could hurt women or Latinos or liberals or conservatives, think about liberals who voted for Ralph Nader and helped elect George W. Bush!
Vote-splitting also leads to negative campaigning, as candidates do anything they can to break out of the pack and fight for their piece of the pie.
It leads to stress and strategy for voters. Instead of just picking your favorite candidate, you spend time gaming out who has the best chance to win. Voting for your favorite candidate might actually help your least favorite candidate. The burden is even greater among Black and Brown voters, because of how hard we’ve fought for our voting rights over decades – and how seriously we take them.
But elections aren’t a game. Our lives and livelihoods are at stake. The way we vote should be simple, and it should elect the most popular candidates.
Thankfully, there’s a proven solution to vote-splitting: ranked choice voting. In ranked choice voting, voters rank multiple candidates in order of preference. If your top choice can’t win, your vote counts for your next choice. A winner is declared when a candidate receives more than half the votes.
The fear of vote-splitting is gone. If you want to vote for, say, former Secretary of Education John King but worry that you’d take a vote away from former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez – you could just rank King 1st and Perez 2nd. If King doesn’t have a shot at winning, your vote would count for Perez.
On the other side, Secretary King and Secretary Perez have incentives to reach outside their political base – King wants the 2nd-choice votes of Perez supporters, and Perez wants the 2nd-choice votes of King supporters.
In contests with such high stakes, it’s important that ranked choice voting isn’t just some experiment: it has a proven track record across 55 cities, counties, and states.
A recent report shows how ranked choice voting reduces “vote-splitting” and benefits candidates of color. More candidates of color run in ranked choice voting elections and win. In fact, Black candidates are twice as likely to win in a ranked choice voting election when there are multiple Black candidates in the race. And in cities like New York City, Minneapolis, and Salt Lake City, ranked choice voting elections have produced the most diverse City Councils ever.
Research has also found that campaigning is less negative and more civil in ranked choice voting elections. Unsurprisingly, voters across the country like ranked choice voting and find it easy to use.
While it’s too late to use ranked choice voting in Maryland’s 2022 elections, we should think about how it can improve voting, and help Black and Brown people express our power, in years to come.
After all, we should want more of the best and brightest from our community to run – and win. We deserve better than poring over the polls and praying our votes don’t get wasted. We should be empowered by our democracy.
Marvin Randolph is a nationally recognized political campaigns expert who currently serves as President of ONYX Communications and the Southern Elections Fund. Marvin is a Maryland resident, and has worked on more than 120 campaigns in 31 states.
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