Voices & Choices

Spoilers Ahead: How to Combat Third Party Panic

Spoilers Ahead: How to Combat Third Party Panic

With Michigan Rep. Justin Amash yesterday announcing the formation of an exploratory committee for a potential Libertarian Party presidential bid, officials from both major parties are understandably alarmed at the prospect of a prominent third party spoiler.

After all, it’s conceivable that Amash could draw votes from both Republican Donald Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. This could create a situation where a candidate wins the general election without the support of the majority of the electorate—or worse, a scenario where two candidates with overlapping bases of support split the vote, throwing the election to a candidate whom the majority of voters dislike.

But these scenarios needn’t happen—because a solution exists.

It’s a solution that would allow citizens to vote their hearts while also ensuring that a vote cast for a third party candidate does not benefit one’s least favorite candidate.

It’s a solution that would encourage positive campaigning and coalition-building among candidates, dismantle the “lesser-of-two-evils” mentality that so many voters currently have, and allow for alternative perspectives to be aired.

It’s also a solution that would guarantee that the voice of every voter is heard on Election Day.

What is this solution? Ranked choice voting (RCV).

Here’s how RCV works: Voters pick a first-choice candidate and have the option to rank backup candidates in order of their choice: second, third, and so on. If a candidate receives more than half of the first choices, that candidate wins—just like in any other election. However, if there is no majority winner after counting first choices, the race is decided by an "instant runoff." The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and voters who picked that candidate as ‘number 1’ will have their votes count for their next choice. This process continues until a candidate wins with more than half of the votes, ensuring that the eventual winner has the support of the majority of the electorate.

A brief historical survey of third party candidacies—which FairVote produced when former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz was still considering an independent presidential run in 2019—illustrates the need for RCV in presidential elections.

In 2016, neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton received majority support from the electorate; in fact, the combined vote total for libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein eclipsed the difference between Trump and Clinton. If RCV had been employed in the election, the eventual winner would have been able to claim a stronger mandate.

Looking further back, some claim Green Party candidate Ralph Nader “spoiled the election” for Democratic nominee Al Gore in 2000. Others blame businessman Ross Perot for doing the same to incumbent Republican George H.W. Bush in 1992. Still others blame Theodore Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose Party” run in 1912 for throwing the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

If America had used RCV in its presidential elections, we wouldn’t need to play this ‘blame game.’ Instead, through the series of “instant runoffs” described above, we would come out with a majority winner. But the real winner would be the voters, who could now freely vote their conscience without fear of helping a “spoiler” candidate.

Fast forward to the present. If Amash commits to running, voters who may be typically inclined to support him will be faced with an excruciating decision: vote their hearts and potentially allow an unbearable candidate to win, or vote strategically for a bearable candidate they like less. RCV would make such a decision unnecessary.

There is one state that has placed its trust in the method: Maine, which is set to use RCV to allocate its electoral votes in the November general election. However, it may be too late to adopt RCV on a wider scale in 2020; nonetheless, we hope that more states will follow Maine’s lead in 2024.

That’s because it’s clear that, for presidential elections with more than two candidates, RCV just makes sense. 

Major party leaders wouldn’t need to fear third party candidacies; instead, they could welcome the chance to gauge new areas of support. 

Candidates wouldn’t need to fear a divisive, brutal election. 

Most importantly, voters wouldn’t need to fear ‘vote-splitting,’ choosing the “lesser of two evils,” or the prospect of a candidate winning without majority support.

Electing a president is serious business. If history is any guide, it is clear that RCV would make the process fairer, clearer, and better. That’s why it’s time for RCV.


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