Voices & Choices

Plurality system of voting casts a dark shadow over candidates

Plurality system of voting casts a dark shadow over candidates

Editor’s note: This is the third in a four-part series considering the outcome of the November 2018 elections for the United States House of Representatives in the context of our Monopoly Politics projections. Read the first part here, the second part here.

The 2018 elections for the U.S. House of Representatives are rife with the potential for “spoiler” candidates and plurality wins with far less than 50 percent of the vote. This outcome is especially common in races with more than two candidates, as evidenced by many of the 2018 primary elections and those in districts with a strong third party presence. Third-party and independent candidates are most often cast in the spoiler roles as a result of the two-party system that dominates our political system.

A “spoiler” candidate can sway election results by drawing votes that would otherwise go to one of the main party’s candidates, thereby ruining their chances of winning. This often occurs because the third-party candidates’ political positions are similar to those of one of the main party candidates, but are still distinct enough to draw their own electoral support. Rather than one of the two candidates with similar platforms winning, such a contest can give a victory to a main party candidate with less popular ideas. Such scenarios have long fueled negative polarization, pushing disenchanted American voters to cast strategic ballots, holding their noses to vote for the candidate they dislike the least.

FairVote’s Monopoly Politics, which projects outcomes for the 435 seats in the House, is based exclusively on voter preference for the two main parties, providing limited insight on the impact of third-party candidates. Instead, the model provides an assessment of how competitive a particular race will be between a Democratic and a Republican candidate. If a race is very close, it increases the chances that a third-party candidate will earn more votes than the margin separating the two major party candidates, potentially acting as a “spoiler.”

For this analysis, “spoiler races” are those in which the trailing main party candidate could reach 47 percent in the polls - a level close to the typical margin of error--if awarded all third party votes. Though this method makes the rather simplistic assumption that the third-party vote would all be awarded to the trailing main party candidate if there were no third-party presence, it helps identify races in which the outcomes could surprise or disappoint the majority of the electorate. Based on this definition, 40 congressional district races in the upcoming election are competitive enough to be vulnerable to the spoiler effect.

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Thirty-seven of the 40 seats facing a potential “spoiler effect” are currently held by Republicans, suggesting that national party preference has shifted away from the Republican party - though not necessarily toward the Democrats. Some third-party candidates may be capitalizing on dissatisfaction with the Republican party, or even a given incumbent, rather than the Republican platform. The reverse may also be true. The seats may have been safe for Republicans because third parties traditionally tended to draw support away from Democratic candidates.

Of the 40 potential spoiler races, outcomes for 28 are projected using FairVote’s highest level of confidence. This means the seats can be considered “safe” for one of the main parties under a typical 50-50 year in which the national party preference is equally divided between the two leading parties. Twenty-seven of these “safe” seats are in favor of Republicans. But pundits and pollsters project a significant shift toward the Democrats in 2018. If the national party preference were to swing to 54.3 percent favor Democrats, just eight are considered “safe”for Republican candidates under FairVote’s full projections.

Thirteen potential spoiler races are open seats, comprising 32.5 percent of the 63 total open House seats in the upcoming election. The absence of an incumbent could be seen as a chance for a new third-party presence, splitting the vote.

But the spoiler-effect could be avoided altogether through a a common sense electoral reform already in practice in nearly a dozen U.S. cities, the state of Maine, and countries across the globe.

Consider, for example, the race to represent Maine’s 2nd Congressional District which features an extremely close race between the Democratic and Republican candidates. The latest polls project the Republican candidate has 47.6 percent of the vote, the Democrat has 48.4 percent and the independent candidates have the remaining 3.9 percent. In a typical race, this support for third-party candidates could block the more popular main party platform from winning the seat. But thanks to ranked choice voting (RCV), the fear of handing an election to an unpopular candidate is gone, and third-party candidates are no longer seen as villainous “spoilers.”

RCV allows voters to rank their candidates in order of preference. If no candidate wins an outright majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their ballots re-allocated to their voters’ second preference. The process continues until a candidate wins a majority of the votes.

Ranked choice voting along with multi-winner congressional districts and independent redistricting, as proposed in the Fair Representation Act, would create competitive, spoiler-free elections, empowering truly representative leaders and their constituents.


Illustration by Mikhaila Markham

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