RCV and the Impeachment Trial

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AL) and Susan Collins (R-ME), along with five other Republican Senators, voted to convict Donald Trump of incitement to insurrection in Trump’s second impeachment trial on February 13. The vote to convict was not only a 57-43 majority, but also the most bi-partisan vote to convict a President in our nation’s history. (The Constitution requires a 2/3 supermajority vote of those present to convict, in this case, 67 votes.) In the three prior presidential impeachment trials, those of Andrew JohnsonBill Clinton, and Donald Trump (1), Mitt Romney (R-UT) stands out, up to now, as the only member of an impeached President’s party ever to vote for conviction, even on a single article of impeachment.

The U.S. Senate was conceived by the framers as an august deliberative body of senior statesmen relatively insulated from the voting masses. Not only were Senators given a six year term (unique among federal elected officials), but the Constitution specified they were to be selected by state legislatures, thereby removing them an additional step from the voters. It was not until the 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913, that Senators were elected directly by the people of the states they represent. (Click the link for the story.) Furthermore, the framers did not plan on the rise of political parties or the role such parties would play in backing their partisans and demanding loyalty, but political parties arose early in our history and play an significant role in the calculations of most elected officials. It can be argued that today’s Senators are more answerable to voters and, therefore, potentially less independent and deliberative as statesmen than the framers intended.

Each of the Republicans who voted in favor of convicting Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial is in one way or another relatively isolated (for a while) from Republican electoral backlash an isolation that allows them to hear the overwhelming evidence of Trump’s guilt. Only one (see below) will face the voters in 2022. [2] (See Why Seven Republican Senators Voted to Convict Trumpfrom the NYTimes, February 14th, for more detail.)

Ranked Choice Voting plays a role for two of the seven, Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Susan Collins (R-ME). Alaska and Maine have recently changed their electoral rules by adopting a version of Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), an electoral method currently under consideration in the legislature here in Washington State. There is good reason why Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) is alone as the only one of the seven Senators who must stand for re-election in 2022. By passage of an initiative in the November 2020 election, Alaska became the third state with jungle primaries [1] for all statewide races (like Washington and California), the second state with ranked voting (along with Maine), and the only state with both. Alaska’s new system is unique in that the jungle primary advances the top four vote getters to the general election regardless of the party preference of the candidates. In the general election the winner among the four is determined by ranked choice voting. If one of the four takes more than 50% of the vote they win outright, but if none of the four reaches that threshold then then second choice votes of the lowest vote-getter are re-allocated. With the passage of the 2020 initiative in Alaska the parties no longer control access to the general election ballot, something many feel reduces the chance that an extremist faction will be able to advance a candidate “to primary” an incumbent. Lisa Murkowski adds this reassurance from Alaska’s new voting system to an impressive electoral history: Ms. Murkowski was appointed to her seat to replace her father, Frank Murkowski, in 2002, when the senior Murkowski resigned his seat to become Governor of Alaska. She won elections in 2004, 2010, and 2016. In 2010 she was successfully“primaried” by a Republican Tea Party candidate but went on to win the general election on a write-in vote campaign, only the second U.S. Senator ever to win on a write-in vote. Lisa Murkowski has certainly earned her independent streak.

Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), also from a state recently converted to a form of Ranked Choice Voting, was re-elected in 2020. Maine retains partisan primaries, but, unlike Alaska, uses Ranked Choice Voting in the general election and the primary. In 2020 Ms. Collins had a weak primary challenger; in the general election Collins garnered 50.99% of the vote. That greater than 50% vote avoided triggering the re-assignment of 2nd choice votes under ranked choice voting rules. In the impeachment vote Senator Collins was insulated from party backlash by her new six year term and, perhaps, by the knowledge that if she were to face a far right primary challenger in 2026 the new ranked choice primary might work to her advantage.

I highlight the potential role of Ranked Choice Voting in the electoral calculation that Senators Murkowski and Collins undoubtedly made, to point out that the details each state’s voting system matters. Ranked Choice Voting offers a chance for campaigns that are more civil, attract a broader array of candidates without fear of being a “spoiler,” and result in more equitable representation. HB1156, currently under consideration in the Washington legislature, would modify Washington law to offer local Washington jurisdictions the chance to try Ranked Choice Voting in local elections. The path to state level RCV in Maine was not a straight line. It took years. HB1156 is a first step here in Washington. Keep it in your sights.

Keep to the high ground,

[1] A jungle primary (aka a “nonpartisan blanket primary”) is a primary election in which all candidates for a political office run against each other at once, instead of being segregated by political party. Multiple winners are selected and become the contestants in the general election, in a two-round system.

[2] Of the seven Republicans to vote for conviction only Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) plans to stand for re-election in 2022 (see above). Two others, Richard Burr (R-NC) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) would be up for re-election in 2022, but have announced plans not to run. Mitt Romney (R-UT) faces the 2024 election, but seems secure as a maverick in Mormon Utah. The other three, Ben Sasse (R-NB), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), and Susan Collins (R-ME) don’t face re-election until 2026, completing a picture of relative immunity to being “primaried”. 

P.S. Since the U.S. Constitution left the details of voting up to the states, each state has cobbled together its own rules. This makes understanding election strategy in any one state a complex task–and grasping more than the basic rules in two or more states a massive challenge–a challenge typically taken on only by dedicated strategists looking for an edge. It is time we pay more attention.