Even though they’re no longer running, billionaire Tom Steyer and former mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg will receive many votes on Tuesday. That’s because numerous states have already been voting for days or weeks. The combination of early voting and staggered primaries means that many people waste their votes. This effectively disenfranchises voters, and weakens the party’s ability to choose the strongest nominee. Voters will be left throwing their votes away on candidates who aren’t even competing.

Early voting is becoming increasingly popular, too. Between 2000 and 2014, early ballots jumped from comprising 14 to 31 per cent of all ballots cast in national elections. Some officials have argued that early voting increases turnout, though there’s little evidence for that. Research suggests that early voting just makes voting easier and faster for people who would otherwise vote on election day anyway.

That’s fine for a general election. But in primaries, early voting causes serious problems. State contests are staggered in primaries in order to give voters a chance to gather more information about candidates, their policies and their electability. Voters in the New Hampshire primary can look at results in the Iowa caucuses and adjust their vote according to which candidates did better or worse.

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Early voting completely undermines this process. Texas, for example, has its primary on Super Tuesday, March 3. But it started early voting on February 18 — before South Carolina voted, and even before the Nevada caucuses.

California, for its part, began vote by mail on February 3, the same day as the first primary contest, the Iowa caucuses. California voters were casting ballots while Buttigieg had strong finishes in Iowa (where he effectively tied for first with Bernie Sanders) and in New Hampshire, where he finished a close second. After these contests, voters could have reasonably seen him as a strong general election candidate when they checked his name. And now their ballots are invalid, because he dropped out before they could be counted.

Early voting also makes it impossible for voters to assess other campaign events. Elizabeth Warren had a very strong debate performance on February 20 before the Nevada contest. The debate gave her a slight boost with voters who cast their ballots on the day of the caucuses, February 22. But many voters sent in ballots in the early voting period from February 15 to February 18. The party holds debates to inform voters. Then it encourages them to cast their ballots before they are informed. Where’s the logic in that?

There are a couple of ways that the party could fix this problem. The easiest is simply to end early voting in primary contests. Let people wait to vote until they know which candidates did well in the last debate and, even more importantly, which candidates dropped out. For years there was little or no early voting in primary contests; maybe it’s time to return to that status quo.

Another possibility would be to institute ranked choice voting (RCV). In RCV, voters rank their choices, and if a voter’s top candidate has dropped out, or is not on the ballot, their vote simply goes to the next candidate. RCV could also be used to reallocate votes for candidates who don’t reach the 15 per cent threshold. So, for example, in South Carolina, Buttigieg received less than 15 per cent of the vote, which means he received no delegates. His voters essentially didn’t count. But in an RCV system, a voter could have put, say, Joe Biden as a second choice, and then their vote could be reallocated to him when Buttigieg failed to meet the delegate cut off.

RCV allows voters to cast a ballot for a less successful candidate without worrying that their vote won’t count, or that they’ll aid a candidate they really dislike. It also reduces negative campaigning, since candidates don’t want to alienate voters who might put them as a second choice. RCV has worked well in Maine in local and national elections. It could change the dynamic of primary races for the better, and make it possible for people who vote early to include second and third choices in case their preferred candidate drops out.

There are other possible fixes too: for example, voters could be allowed to change their votes on election day if their candidates drop out. Different states could put in place different fixes, or the national party could stipulate a single solution across the board. But the problem needs to be addressed somehow. The party should not be using a system which virtually ensures that thousands and thousands of voters will cast ballots for candidates who are no longer running.

Super Tuesday should be a moment for Democratic voters to choose their candidate, not a machine for chewing up their ballots and discarding them.

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