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Upholding Majority Rule With Voter Choice: It's Time for Reform

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This election year is a tumultuous one with potentially momentous consequences. But lost in the battle for partisan control of Congress and state government is an important fact: we may be seeing the end of the two-party system as we know it. With voter frustration with both major parties at an all-time high, strong support for third parties and several major races for governor and U.S. Senate with three candidates polling above 15%, it's time to join other democracies in taking steps to accommodate voter choice.

There are a range of options. For legislative elections, we can use any number of systems of proportional voting that already are used in other nations and in our cities. When electing one person, my favorite option is instant runoff voting, the ranked choice voting system getting a first-time use in a statewide general election this November in North Carolina and in several new cities, including a hotly contested election for mayor in Oakland, California. Washington State has its "top two" system where voters have a full range of choice in August primaries, then a runoff between the top two in November.

My colleague Chris Marchsteiner has been doing an excellent series of blogposts from what we call the Non-Majority Rule Desk. I'm going to paste in his latest piece here, and end with links to his previous posts -- they make a good read for showing the range of reasons for us to change the system, from partisan gaming of the system with fake candidacies to clear examples of majority will being thwarted.

Plurality Rules Cause Voters to Abandon Their True Preferences
By Chris Marchsteiner

As November approaches, several major races for governor and the U.S. Senate have three candidates polling in double digits, with no candidate close to a majority. That fact helps shows the defects of a plurality, vote-for-one system where the majority can split its votes and lose. But plurality voting also creates an ongoing problem for voters who end up abandoning their true preferences.

In some states we're starting to see evidenced of the "spoiler impact" - sharp declines in support for significant candidates who have been polling well, but not well enough that voters thought they could win. As FairVote's research shows, many voters will abandon their first choice if they conclude that their favorite candidate can't win and that the choice among the remaining candidates is important enough for them to support a more likely winner and not "waste" their vote. Thus, although independent Tim Cahill at one point polled over 20% in the Massachusetts governor's race, the New York Times now has him polling in single digits. As reported at the non-majority rule desk, even Cahill's own running mate has abandoned him to endorse the Republican nominee.

Cahill is an example of how most often the victims of the spoiler impact are independents and third parties - such minor parties are called "third" for a reason. The notable drop in support for these less prominent candidates is indicative of the pragmatism and strategic considerations underlying voters' choices. But one unusual feature of this election season is that the October desertion of candidates with little chance of victory is providing a direct hit on the major parties as well. The perilous state of Democrat Kendrick Meek's U.S. Senate candidacy in Florida and Republican Dan Maes' candidacy in Colorado illustrates two points: first, the plurality voting system forces voters to choose between candidates with a strong chance of winning regardless of their personal preferences; second, the strength of this undemocratic reality is so great that elections might even force major party candidates from a race, or at least result in a sharp decline in support. Because plurality voting makes voters choose between two top candidates, the perception that a candidate can win matters--and it can make or break a candidate's chances. Even worse, it obscures voters' real preferences altogether as support fluctuates among candidates not because of their policy preferences, but because of their perceived ability to win.

Meek is increasingly being cast a spoiler in his Senate campaign in Florida, and for good reason according to a recent poll--56% of those voting for Meek said they would vote for Charlie Crist as a second choice and only 8% for Rubio. Polls generally show Republican Mario Rubio at about a 44%, independent (and sitting governor) Charlie Crist at 31% and Meek at 23%. Meek's last place status has led some members of his own party to turn on him. Former President Bill Clinton is stumping for Meek as a way of maintaining unity within the Democratic Party, but Robert Kennedy recently campaigned in Florida for Crist, calling on Meek to step down. With most Meek supporters likely to migrate to Crist if his support declines, his relative performance may be the decisive fact in the election.

In Colorado, Republican Dan Maes' situation in the gubernatorial race is already far more desperate. Some polls have had him as low as 13%, well behind Democrat John Hickenlooper and Constitution Party (and former Republican Congressman) candidate Tom Tancredo. A poor performance would affect not only his candidacy, but the entire Republican Party. Because Colorado law dictates that a party cannot retain major party status if it polls under 10% in a race, a single digit outcome for Maes would affect Republicans in both the 2012 and 2014 election. Minor parties in Colorado are placed farther down the ballot, including in the presidential race, and because their nominees more often cannot run in primaries, they are not allowed to raise as much money. But on the other hand, the worse Maes does, the more likely that Tancredo will win.

The Wall Street Journal on October 18 featured a post on the state of third party and independent candidates. In addition to Cahill, the piece mentions Eliot Cutler of Maine and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island as minor candidates whose chances are "evaporating" as a result of close races and close election dates, although Chafee's poll results have fluctuated wildly. Cutler's share of the vote is hovering around 14%. But the Maine gubernatorial race still remains very close; Republican Paul LePage polls at 32.9% and Democrat Libby Mitchell at 28%. The two states that are more fluid right now are Alaska, where Sen. Lisa Murkowski's independent bid for re-election as a write-in has created uneven polls, some of which put her in the lead, and Minnesota, where Independence Party nominee Tom Horner, running for governor, seems to be gaining in popularity and just this week picked up the endorsement of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. In 1998, voters elected his party's nominee for governor that year, Jesse Ventura.

Previous Posts from Chris Marchsteiner's Non-Majority Rule Desk.

Fake Third Party Candidates, Meek's Mixed Support, and the Unusual Cases of Illinois and Minnesota
Posted: October 13, 2010

Independent Presidential Candidates, the Spoiler Effect, and Party Betrayal
Posted: October 5, 2010

Undemocratic Rules Produce Undemocratic Results -- Even With Majority Victories
Posted: September 28, 2010

Murkowski's Write-in Candidacy and Other Significant Third Party Candidates
Posted: September 22, 2010

Non-Majority Winners and Partisan Manipulation in the Gubernatorial Races and Primaries
Posted: September 15, 2010

Without Majority Rule, Partisans Game the Vote -- Suppressing Voter Choice
Posted: September 8, 2010

North Carolina uses Instant Runoff Voting for the first time in a statewide election
Posted: September 1, 2010