Voices & Choices

Let’s make elections about the issues, not “spoiler” hacks

Let’s make elections about the issues, not “spoiler” hacks

On the eve of the 2018 midterm elections, the issue of “spoilers” and third-party and independent candidates is front and center in several of most high-profile elections, even as Maine is showcasing the best solution: ranked choice voting.

President Donald Trump brought attention to how the major parties can manipulate voters through use and abuse of the role of third-party candidates. On Saturday, the president tweeted that allies of incumbent Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly have been seeking to elevate the Libertarian Party candidate as more conservative than the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate:

Rumor has it that Senator Joe Donnelly of Indiana is paying for Facebook ads for his so-called opponent on the libertarian ticket. Donnelly is trying to steal the election? Isn’t that what Russia did!?

The Indiana Democratic Party indeed has issued ads that compare Republican Mike Braun and Libertarian nominee Lucy Brenton - not because they want Brenton to win, of course, but because they know that conservative votes for Brenton are votes not being cast for Braun.

Both parties engage in such tactics regularly, with controversies this year including the staff of a Republican congressman in Virginia collecting fraudulent signatures in an effort to help a former Democratic congressional nominee get on the ballot as an an independent. As Trump points out, Russian hackers of our elections in 2016 engaged in the same tactic in the presidential race, which former Republican congressman John Porter and I explained in an op-ed earlier this year.

More generally, third parties and independents are under attack across the nation for “spoiling” elections, as detailed last month by FairVote intern Ryan Joy. Notably, the past month has seen a run of prominent independents and third parties dropping out to avoid dividing a potential majority vote. Dropouts include the incumbent independent governor of Alaska Bill Walker and candidates running in major statewide races in Arizona, Maine, Oregon and - at least for one day - Michigan. In Georgia, votes for Libertarian nominees in elections for governor and secretary of state may trigger a December runoff election, as Georgia seeks to uphold majority rule.

Congressman Porter and I turn to a better way to secure our elections and put voters first:  ranked choice voting (RCV). Already used in 11 cities, with five additional cities recently enacting it for their next elections, RCV is being showcased this year in Maine in multi-candidate races for U.S. Senate and U.S. House for the first time in American history. Grounded in the editors’ experience with RCV in mayoral elections in Portland and the statewide primaries in June, this editorial in the Maine’s largest paper, The Portland Press Herald, about the withdrawal of independent gubernatorial candidate Alan Caron makes a compelling contrast between our usual single-choice, “top-of-the-heap” plurality system with ranked choice voting:

Caron came into the race with decades looking at Maine’s economic history and formulating ideas about what could make it grow now. But for most of the race, the first question he was asked was how he would navigate the spoiler question….. How different would this race have been if ranked-choice voting had been in play? Instead of asking him to drop out, people might have asked him about his plan to make the state energy independent by 2030, or two free years of higher ed for students who live in Maine for 10 years. Instead of focusing on how to prevent the worst possible outcome from the election, voters could have thought about what the best outcome could look like. That doesn’t mean that candidates like Caron would win, but they would at least have a chance to make their case.

Next Tuesday, Mainers will be able to compare the two voting systems. They will be able to rank preferences in the multi-candidate races for U.S. Senate and Congress but not in the three-way race for governor. Any of them who did not fill out a ranked-choice ballot in the June primary will get a chance to decide what’s more confusing: Marking a ballot that indicates a first and second choice, or trying to handicap a multi-candidate race, figuring out who’s a legitimate contender and who’s a spoiler.

In his news conference Monday, Caron said that he would work to pass a constitutional amendment to permit ranked-choice voting in state races. That remains the best way to address this problem.

FairVote’s senior fellow David Daley foreshadowed this editorial in his recent excellent analysis for the journal Democracy:

“[Ranked choice voting] is not a partisan reform. There will be times when it might help Democrats, or aid Republicans, or boost independents. This is a reform for voters, and a reform that incentivizes politicians to campaign and govern beyond their bases. RCV is the most significant reform we could enact to give voters more meaningful choices and ensure winners with true majority support. Candidates shouldn’t be dropping out, and offering voters fewer choices, just when most voters are beginning to pay attention. Likewise, there’s no need for voters to spend late October obsessing with polls and fretting a spoiler vote, or having to return a second time to the polls in November. The solution is as easy as 1, 2, 3.”

Let’s do what’s best for voters - and best for upholding the integrity of our elections - and avoiding electoral tactics based on undercutting representative democracy. Let’s enact ranked choice voting across our federal and state elections.

Illustration by Mikhaila Markham 

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