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Without Majority Rule, Partisans Game the Vote -- Supressing Voter Choice

by Chris Marchsteiner, The Non-Majority Rule Desk // Published September 8, 2010

2010 is a particularly important election. 37 states will elect governors to run their states – often with national implications through the central role governors typically will have in redistricting before the 2012 elections. Control of both the U.S. House and Senate are in play, with the outcome potentially hinging on votes in a handful of states.

Voters deserve a system they can trust - -and that respects the will of the majority.

Unfortunately, most voters cannot trust their electoral rules to uphold the basic value of majority rule. As the gubernatorial and Senate races heat up this fall, the so-called “spoiler effect” threatens to interfere with many close races across the country – in some instances due to deliberate partisan efforts to manipulate the system. They demonstrate the dire need for voting reform to replace the outdated and broken plurality system with instant runoff voting (IRV).

Both major parties have been caught apparently backing minor party candidates in order to divert a damaging number of votes from the opposing party. In Michigan, the Supreme Court recently blocked 23 “Tea Party” candidates from appearing on the ballot in November. Republicans and tea party activists insist the Democratic Party backed the candidates to ensure Democratic victories in tight races. Although the Democratic Party denies the claim, the Oakland County Democratic Party chairman has since resigned. Similar concerns have been raised in Nevada about a Tea Party candidate in the state’s dead-even U.S. Senate race. 

In Arizona, the New York Times this week featured a story where Republicans  recruited Green Party candidates to divert Democratic votes. The Republican operative behind the scheme, Steve May, openly admits to signing up candidates, including several homeless people, to hurt Democrats in important races. According to a lawyer representing the Democratic Party, “These are people who are not serious and who were recruited as part of a cynical manipulation of the process.”

Of course real third party candidates and independents are playing a prominent role in many elections as well – no surprise, given historic lows in the public’s view of the major parties. The instance gaining the most media attention is the three-way U.S. Senate race in Florida, where the state’s governor Charlie Crist has left the Republican Party to run as an independent. Current polls show Crist and Republican Marco Rubio evenly matched with about 39% of the vote while Democrat Kendrick Meek trails with around 21%. With Crist expected to caucus with the Democrats if elected, they essentially have two candidates in the race. A majority victory is highly unlikely – and while Crist likely would defeat Rubio one-on-one, he may lose depending on how well Meek does.

While major party candidates are nearly certain to win all other U.S. Senate races, winners in several states like California, Colorado, Illlinois, and Nevada will likely fall short of a majority, meaning the outcomes may hinge on which party’s base splits in voting for non major-party candidates.  Several current Democratic senators likely would not have been elected without majorities splitting in their state in voting for Libertarian Party candidates, which could occur again in states like California and Colorado.

Third parties and independents are even more likely to affect governors’ races – and potentially win some. The gubernatorial election in Rhode Island looks like it will play out similarly to the U.S. Senate race in Florida. A former Republican Senator known for progressive views on the war and environment, the latest polls show independent Lincoln Chafee winning 34% of the vote or more. The Republican and Democratic candidates are slated to get 25% and 34% of the vote respectively.

In Maine, independent candidate Eliot Cutler may determine the close race between Republican Paul LePage and Democrat Libby Mitchell. Speculated to garner 12% of the vote on Election Day, supporters of Cutler would be likely to choose Mitchell as their second choice but could end up handing the election to LePage. Such results have become the norm in Maine, with several governors elected with less than 40% in the last two decades.   

Minnesota is another state where majority governors are rare, and this year is likely to be no exception. Polls show the major party candidates dead even, with 47% for Democrat Mark Dayton and 41% for Republican Tom Emmer. In Massachusetts, incumbent Democrat Deval Patrick is polling at 34%, narrowly ahead of his Republican challenger – with 18% going to independent Timothy Cahill and 4% to Green Party candidate Jill Stein. Votes for third parties and independents could contribute to non-majority winners in other states like Colorado.   

This overview of the races this fall demonstrates pervasive representative flaws in our current way of electing representatives at all levels of government. Our major political parties cynically abuse the ability of third party candidates to divert votes from a major candidate and “spoil” the election, awarding victory to the candidate most out of line with the voters’ political views. Prominent third party candidates likely prevent voters from reaching a majority consensus.

At the same time, third parties and independents have every right to offer an alternative to the major parties, but often voters shy away from them out of fear of “throwing away” their vote. Representative democracy becomes highly problematic when voting becomes far more about voting against your “greater of two evils” than voting for a candidate you support. Take voter sentiment in the contest between Sen. Harry Reid and Republican candidate Sharron Angle in Nevada, which provides a strong indictment of the current plurality system. A local news poll revealed that 49% of the state would prefer another Democratic candidate to Harry Reid while 68% would prefer a different Republican. But voting for other candidates won’t help those alternatives win – and could cause a voter’s greater evil to lose. Clearly, the plurality system has failed the voters of Nevada.   

Instant runoff voting (IRV) is an increasingly popular system designed to correct these problems by allowing voters to rank their choices. Parties would not be able to hurt their opponents by fielding fake candidates intended to capture a small but significant percentage of the vote because the least popular candidates are eliminated through a series of simulated runoffs and the votes are counted in the runoff round for the next choice on the ballots among candidates still in the running. With IRV, third party candidates are do not split the vote in favor of the less preferred major candidate and majority consensuses can still be reached in races with three or more candidates.

FairVote will continue to follow these races and many more throughout the fall. Check back for updates frequently.