Many perspectives, 1 simple etiquette

Creating a Fairer Voting System: It’s Time to Take Vote Splitting Seriously

Author: Ben Chapman
Created: 02 July, 2018
Updated: 17 October, 2022
4 min read

Americans deserve a fair voting system

If you’re like many Americans, you’ve never heard of vote splitting, yet it exerts an underlying force on American elections that has the potential to change the outcome of an entire race.

Think back to the 2016 Republican Primaries. Towards the end, many moderate Republican strategists were urging struggling candidates such as Governor Kasich to drop out. They argued that Kasich was “splitting” off votes from Senator Rubio, the result being that neither candidate could accrue the necessary votes for victory over Mr. Trump. In effect, Rubio’s ability to win was hampered by Governor Kasich’s presence in the race.

Put generally, vote splitting looks like this: If there are three moderate candidates, and 60% of the voters support moderatism, then each candidate will win only 20% of the vote. Meanwhile, if there is only a single fringe candidate and 25% of voters support fringe policies, then that fringe candidate will win 25% of the vote and will have a plurality. Note that even though moderate ideas have a majority constituency of 60% of voters, the 25% on the fringe win.

This isn’t exactly a shining illustration of democracy.

A variation of vote splitting is known as “spoiling.” A “spoiler” candidate is usually a third-party or independent candidate in a general election that splits the vote just enough to change the outcome. For example, if a leftist Green Party candidate in a fiercely contested presidential election snatches up 5% of the vote, they may take just enough of those votes from the Democratic candidate to spoil their chance at victory.

Should the Green Party be at fault for this? Certainly not. It is their right and duty to run for office as they see necessary.

Should the voters who voted for the Green Party be at fault? Certainly not. We should encourage honest expression at the ballot box.

The system is at fault. Specifically, we should blame the “First Past the Post” (FPTP) voting system that we use in America.

In a FPTP election, voters are given a list of candidates and are permitted to vote for only one of them. If you agree with moderate ideas, you must select only one moderate candidate, even if there are many candidates in the race you approve of. Because of this, FPTP inhibits voter expression. Your vote must say, “I agree with this candidate 100%, and I disagree with all the other candidates. This is simply not accurate enough for most Americans.

However, many Americans may have never even considered different ballot designs. For centuries, FPTP is just the way things have been done. Our election methods are so ingrained that we often just accept splitting and spoiling as part of the game. Over time, we’ve become accustomed to black and white decisions of “I like this candidate and hate all the others.” But these ideas — while traditional and comfortable for Americans — are severely injuring our democracy.

Fortunately, solutions abound. Probably the most discussed and promoted solution is known as “Ranked Choice Voting.” In this system, voters rank candidates in order of preference. Here’s how those votes are tallied.

Suppose I cast a ballot ranking Candidate A first, Candidate B second, and Candidate C third. Essentially, I am saying that “I like Candidate A, but if I can’t have Candidate A, then give my vote to Candidate B, but if I can’t have Candidate B, then give my vote to Candidate C.”

The votes are then counted in rounds. To start, all the first-ranked votes are counted. If any candidate has over 50% of the votes, then that candidate wins immediately. If no candidate has the majority, there is a second round. In this round, the candidate with the lowest amount of first-ranked votes is disqualified, and all this person’s votes will be distributed to their voters’ secondary preferences. They then re-tally the votes and check if any candidate has over 50% of the votes. This proceeds until one candidate has a majority of votes.

The Ranked Choice Voting Method performs better than FPTP on all accounts. It reduces vote splitting, allows voters to express their preferences more precisely, and it eliminates potential for spoiling, which allows voters to vote for minor candidates without wasting their vote. Ranked Choice Voting is better.

Yes, America is used to FPTP. Changing methods will require a learning curve for pollers, campaign strategists, and even voters. However, we can no longer afford to plague our elections with blatantly undemocratic splitting and spoiling. It simply doesn’t work. In the long run, switching to Ranked Choice is imperative.