Voices & Choices

Plurality voting leaves elections open to manipulation 

Plurality voting leaves elections open to manipulation 

Most American elections use the same, supposedly-simple system: plurality voting, where whoever gets the most votes wins even if a majority of voters support one of the other candidates. Yet despite their widespread use, plurality elections are rife with opportunities for campaigns to game the system. 

The simplest way a campaign can use plurality voting to its advantage is by promoting third parties that are ideologically close to their opponents, thereby splitting the opponents’ base between several options and improving its own chance of winning with a plurality.

For instance, the Montana Republican Party spent $100,000 financing signature gatherers to help Green Party candidates qualify for the 2020 ballot. State Democrats argued the Republicans were trying to affect the elections by having the Green Party split the liberal vote, improving the Republicans’ chances of winning. The Republicans countered that they were only trying to give Montanans more choice. This isn’t a tactic limited to any single party either. In the state’s 2012 U.S. Senate race, a liberal group ran ads for a Libertarian candidate to take votes away from the Republican.

A related tactic involves placing “phantom candidates” on the ballot, who are meant to take away votes from one’s actual opponents in a plurality race. Phantom candidates are not intended to have a chance at winning, so they do not actively campaign or maintain websites.

New Jersey’s Camden County Democratic Committee allegedly pursued this strategy in several 2019 county primary races, recruiting phantom candidates who would take away votes from actual challengers, thereby protecting the incumbent slate. When contacted by Politico, one of purported phantom candidates could not name his running mate or reasons for running, saying he had only agreed to run after being asked to do so by a local Board of Education president. 

A final way plurality voting can be abused is when a candidate of one party helps a polarizing candidate of the opposite party win their party’s nomination. This puts moderate general election voters in the difficult position of feeling like they have to vote for your side or ‘throw their vote away’ on a third party candidate with no real chance of winning.

Democrat Claire McCaskill famously used this tactic in her 2012 Senate race. In her memoir, she describes how her campaign conducted polling which determined that Todd Aikin would be the weakest Republican candidate in the general election, then ran ads designed to help him win his party’s nomination. McCaskill went on to defeat him in the general election. 

A liberal group in Kansas is allegedly using this strategy now to affect that state’s 2020 Senate election, running ads to elevate a candidate some consider polarizing to win the Republican nomination. 

None of these strategies would be as effective with a fairer election system like Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). Third parties could access the ballot without raising concerns about ‘spoiling’ any races, phantom candidates would not be an issue because the votes they receive could be re-allocated to other candidates once they are eliminated, and with more viable options in the general election, voters would no longer feel stuck choosing between the ‘lesser of two evils’ when a polarizing nominee wins one major party’s nomination.


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