In this month’s St. Petersburg municipal elections, Boris Vishnevsky, a member of the liberal Yabloko party, faced a shocking challenge: two other candidates changed their names to Boris Vishevsky in order to confuse voters and split the vote to prevent the original Vishnevsky’s victory. These fraudulent candidates even went a step further, growing out their beards and mustaches, altering their hairlines, and possibly even photoshopping photos of themselves, so as to be nearly indistinguishable from Vishnevsky’s official candidate photo.
When campaign posters were hung in St. Petersburg, voters faced a slate of three candidates, all with the same name and nearly identical photos. The tactic of running against a candidate with the same last name in order to confuse voters is fairly common in Russian elections. Yet this case of candidates legally changing their full names, and altering their appearances, is an altogether new and alarming attempt at sowing voter confusion to alter the outcome of an election.
Although this sounds like an outlandish story, similar instances have occurred closer to home. Earlier this year, a former Florida state senator was charged for orchestrating a scheme involving a false third party candidate running in a state senate race. This fake candidate had the same last name as the incumbent, Jose Javier Rodriguez, a tactic used in order to siphon votes away from Rodriguez.
This highlights the broken incentives in American elections. When candidates can win with a simple plurality of votes, operatives can run fake candidates to act as “spoilers” by splitting the vote and handing a victory to a candidate who may not have the broadest support of voters. This is unfair to voters, and to sincere candidates of all parties who run to make a difference in their communities.
The simple solution to these flaws in the election system is ranked choice voting (RCV), a system which would redistribute votes from lower-performing candidates to the voters’ second choice candidates. With RCV, the vote-splitting tactics used in Russia and Florida would pose less of a threat to altering the election outcomes. To get involved in the fight for RCV, check out FairVote’s list of ways to take action.