Many of us will feel stuck with a “lesser of two evils” choice on this year’s presidential ballot. It’s familiar and discouraging – we yearn for more choices. Some of us will look to the Green or Libertarian parties (Jill Stein and Gary Johnson, respectively), and maybe the late entry of an independent candidate.
But even if we favor one of these “outside candidates” – one who doesn’t have a “D” or an “R” after his or her name – we often feel reluctant to vote for that candidate we like best, out of fear that we might help elect the one we like the least. Get ready for “a vote for Jill Stein is a vote for Trump” or “don’t vote for Johnson, or you’re voting for Hillary.”
So we play it safe and vote strategically. This phenomenon is a result of the “spoiler effect” – the suppressive force of this effect is strong enough to discourage additional viable parties and candidates. That’s right: The spoiler effect is one of the main factors that cause us to have just two dominant parties and thus just two viable choices on our ballot.
Ross Perot is often accused of spoiling George H.W. Bush’s re-election prospects in 1992, and Ralph Nader is probably better known for his spoiler role in the 2000 presidential election than for anything else in his long career. But we shouldn’t blame Perot, Nader or any other third or fourth candidates. We need more choices on our ballot, and we should instead fix our broken and archaic system of electing our leaders.
What causes the spoiler effect? In a two-person race, the winner will have greater than 50 percent of the votes – no problem. In a race of three or more candidates, however, the winner may have less than 50 percent. By drawing votes away from a similar candidate (sometimes called “vote-splitting”), one or more of those third or fourth candidates in a race may cause the most-preferred candidate to lose – spoiling the better outcome.
So while it sounds like a boring detail, allowing a candidate to win with less than 50 percent of the votes is what causes the spoiler effect. Many countries, and some states in the U.S., have an initial election and then hold an actual runoff election between the top two finishers in the first round, to ensure a majority outcome. But actual runoff elections are expensive, draw few participants and disenfranchise absentee and overseas voters, including active-duty U.S. service members who are stationed abroad.
What’s the solution? Ranked-choice voting is a proven and efficient mechanism that eliminates the spoiler effect and requires us to go to the polls only once.
Simply stated, ranked-choice voting is a series of automatic runoffs of the strongest candidates. With use of voters’ second and third choices, ranked choice voting immediately answers the following question: “What are the results of the election if the least successful candidate is eliminated, and everyone votes again?” That process, which repeats until one candidate has reached a majority, eliminates the spoiler effect. Voters can vote based on their hopes, not based on their fears.
Ranked-choice voting also encourages more civil campaigning, as candidates need to woo second-choice rankings from supporters of rival candidates. Candidates A and C may knock on the door of a voter who’s put up a lawn sign for Candidate B, and ask to be that voter’s second choice – a strategy that could make the difference for Candidate A or C to win, should Candidate B finish in last place.
While we won’t solve how we elect our president this year, Maine has a real chance to set an example for the rest of the country.
In November, Mainers will vote whether to implement ranked-choice voting to elect our state’s lawmakers and governor. If we vote “yes,” we’ll be voting to restore majority election outcomes and to give those third and fourth candidates a greater chance for our votes – without fear. We’ll be voting for greater choice – no more “lesser of two evils.” We’ll be voting for more positive campaigns.
But perhaps most importantly, we’ll be voting to leave to our children and grandchildren a better system for electing our leaders.
To do all of this, vote “yes” on Question 5 on November’s statewide ballot.
Editor's note: This article originally published in the Portland Press Herald. Republished with permission from the author.