Top-Two Open Primary in Montana--is it like Ranked Choice Voting?

As the Executive Director of RCV Montana, I have gotten multiple questions about the bill proposing a Top-Two Open Primary for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Senator Jon Tester and whether it is a positive step for Montana.

The original bill (SB 566) was tabled but has now been revived under HB 774 and has been expanded to include both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House along with removing the sunset. 

RCV Montana is the leading organization advocating for voting reform here in Montana. Our mission is to educate Montanans about innovative systems to improve democracy such as ranked-choice voting, approval voting, range voting, and open primaries. While we do advocate for open primaries and applaud each legislator so far who has entertained this reform, the current proposals would not be the most positive step forward for Montana. 

The Executive Director of the Montana Republican Party echoed the bill sponsor when she testified that “if a candidate is going to represent Montanans in the U.S. Senate for the next six years, that person should have to earn more than 50% of the votes across the state.” While we wholeheartedly agree with this statement, a top-two primary is not a reliable pathway by itself to voter consensus and a majority win. 

It is obvious that Republicans feel that Libertarians are siphoning votes from their candidate. It is also obvious that Democrats feel that they are benefiting from this assumption. But, as a senior elections analyst from FiveThirtyEight recently wrote, “You can’t just assume that every Libertarian voter would have voted Republican if the Libertarian candidate hadn’t been on the ballot; elections don’t work like that. In fact, by our reckoning, Tester probably still would have won each of his previous elections even without a Libertarian on the ballot.” 

Overall, open primaries have improved choice, have the proven track record of electing more moderate candidates and have increased voter turnout among major parties and independents. However, it is important to understand that top-two open primaries, especially in a high profile race like Jon Tester’s seat, can actually magnify this vote-splitting problem that they’re trying to solve. 

In other states that have used Top-Two, like Washington and California, this has resulted in problems affecting both sides. The minority party could recruit multiple candidates for the opposing party to split the vote, or the majority party could shoot themselves in the foot by attracting multiple candidates that end up splitting their own voter base resulting in a minority win. 

Despite the fact that Top-Two is still subject to vote splitting, it is important to reiterate that open primaries have largely improved elections, improved candidates, increased voter participation, and resulted in a majority winner. Yes, even in the cases where two candidates from the same party end up on the general ballot, these candidates end up being an improvement, because while the leading party stamp may not have changed, they are being elected by a broader range of voters and studies have shown that their behavior while in office has been less extreme and more representative of their constituents.

The primary election is an important problem to solve and top-two open primaries could be a positive baby-step forward, especially if we are going to keep our current plurality voting system. However, a system that would better solve these problems is an expressive system like Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). Similar to the Virginia GOP, parties could rank their candidates in the primaries to find the most viable candidate to compete in the general. Like Alaska, we could implement a Top Four Open Primary and then rank those four candidates in the general election (As I recommend RCV, it is important to remind Montanans that many of your legislators who have voted for open primaries to ensure a majority winner also chose to ban ranked-choice voting this year. We hope the governor will veto this ban on RCV).

One of the most glaring problems with the current proposals is its effect on third parties. Even if everyone in Montana agrees that opening the primaries is a positive step, doing so requires that we alter the ballot-access laws in Montana. Even with the recent amendments to SB 565, this bill is not a neutral change. It makes it significantly harder for third parties to maintain (or gain) ballot access. This is blatantly undemocratic and again, there is actually little mathematical incentive for either party to try and box out the Libertarians.

We urge Senator Greg Hertz that if you truly believe that open primaries is an improvement to the current system and want to salvage its chances, then sell the open primary and make the changes to ballot access neutral or better.