Voices & Choices

How to have more choices without 'spoilers'

How to have more choices without 'spoilers'

Do you want candidates for our highest offices elected who have the support of a majority of voters? What about greater choices on the ballot? These are key questions at the center of ongoing debates about so-called “spoiler” candidates and reforms that would uphold the will of the voters while giving them more voice.

At least seven of most recent elections - including gubernatorial and Senate seats -  were won by candidates who received less than half the votes: six Democrats and one Republican. Neither political party has the advantage, or disadvantage, when it comes to spoiler candidates. The consistent losers are the voters, who end up with unrepresentative winners while feeling restricted from freely voting for their favorite candidates.

The close, three-way Senate race that just concluded in Arizona, nearly a week after Election Day, saw Democrat Kyrsten Sinema win with 49.7 percent of votes, compared with Republican Martha McSally’s 48 percent and 2.4 percent for Green Party candidate Angela Green. Leading up to the recently declared victory, there was a lot of finger-pointing at Green, who was blamed as a spoiler for the Democratic candidate, even after exiting the race, endorsing Sinema, and calling for ranked choice voting. If the Republican had won, critics could suggest the Democrat would have won if the Green Party candidate wasn’t in the race. This assumes people who vote Green are more likely to vote Democrat if no Green candidate is in the race.

Or, consider the governor’s race in Connecticut, where the Democrat won by 40,677 votes, fewer than the 54,490 votes cast for the conservative independent. Critics could easily label the independent candidate a spoiler, suggesting that had he not been in the race, his votes would have gone to the Republican and potentially led to a different outcome.

In Indiana, there were fears that Libertarian U.S. Senate candidate Lucy Brenton would act as a spoiler and lead to a Democrat win. The voters, though, gave the Republican candidate Mike Braun a decisive majority, making the spoiler fears unfounded in this particular case.


In other instances, those same spoiler fears forced independent and third-party candidates to drop out of their races after absentee and early voting started: independent incumbent Gov. Bill Walker in Alaska, Montana Libertarian U.S. Senate candidate Rick Breckenridge (at least temporarily), Maine independent candidate Alan Caron, and independent gubernatorial candidate Patrick Starnes in Oregon. And there were others.

Three or more candidates running in a single race also increases the likelihood that the person with the most votes won’t reach that critical threshold we like to talk about in democracies: a majority. When multiple candidates run, their votes can be split such that no one candidate receives more than 50 percent. This means the person elected to represent an entire district or state doesn’t necessarily have the support of a majority of voters in that district or state. And to put it more starkly, a majority of voters actually wanted someone else.

This exact scenario led to the historic reform in Maine. Outgoing Gov. Paul LePage won the 2010 election with just 37.6 percent of the vote in a five candidate race. That means 62.4 percent of voters wanted someone else elected governor. However, that wasn’t a problem in the four-way race for Maine 2nd Congressional District, thanks to an innovative reform known as ranked choice voting.

Ranked choice voting allows additional candidates to legitimately compete without being cast as spoilers, while preserving outcomes with majority support. In Maine’s 2nd District, that meant two independent candidates could compete against the major party nominees, freeing them from the spoiler-label and instead welcoming their ideas to political debate. Voters could rank the candidates based on who best represented them — eight percent picked one of the independents as ‘no. 1.’  Notably, both of Maine’s two congressional districts were among the top three in the nation for votes cast for candidates outside the major parties.No matter the winner, the ranked choice tally protects against a winner who doesn’t receive majority support, while giving voters a chance to express their views.

Illustration by Mikhaila Markham 

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