An End to Spoiler Candidates

If more states adopted ranked-choice voting, far fewer elections would include unsatisfactory, binary choices and minority-backed winners.

By David Daley

Tagged DemocracyDemocratsElectionsPrimariesRepublicansvoting rights

We’re in the final hours of the 2018 midterms. Polls suggest a blue wave cresting. But in three buzzy gubernatorial races and one tight U.S. Senate contest, something more unexpected is afoot: Candidates are dropping out just as voters prepare to deliver a verdict.

In Maine this week, Alan Caron abandoned his independent race for governor and endorsed the Democrat, attorney general Janet Mills. Four thousand miles away, in Alaska, incumbent Governor Bill Walker abruptly suspended his re-election campaign. Walker, a Republican turned independent, also threw his support behind a Democrat, the former U.S. Senator Mark Begich. Oregon independent Patrick Starnes also scuttled his campaign this week and endorsed Democratic incumbent Kate Brown, while in Montana, the Libertarian candidate bowed out and endorsed Republican Matt Rosendale.

None of these candidates were embroiled in scandal, out of cash, or facing an unexpected family crisis, but they did share something in common: They all concluded that they could not win. Worse, in fields crowded with independent candidates, they feared being the spoiler responsible for electing the candidate they preferred least.

That’s an understandable fear, especially in Maine, where nine of the last 11 governors have failed to win the support of more than 50 percent of voters. Five of those governors—and two of the last three—have even fallen short of 40 percent. A rueful bumper sticker regularly sighted after the 2010 election read simply 61.8—the percentage of voters who did not back the winner, controversial conservative Paul LePage.

Nevertheless, there’s a simple solution. Ranked-choice voting—or instant runoff voting—would allow every candidate to run hard through Election Day. Voters would have more choice. They could vote for the candidate they truly liked best, without also worrying that they’d accidentally elect their least palatable option. Better still, voters (and candidates) would not be required to spend late October studying increasingly unreliable polls to calculate whether it was safe to vote for their favorite candidate and not the lesser of evils.

RCV mimics an instant-runoff, such as that which exists in France and Brazil, for example, but all in one low-cost, high-turnout election. It’s easy: Instead of selecting one candidate, voters rank them in order. A growing number of cities and states—from Maine to San Francisco and Santa Fe—have chosen to conduct ranked-choice elections this year, and reaped the benefits of extra choice without the fear of an unpopular spoiler sneaking into office. In Maine, multiple candidates are running for the U.S. Senate and the state’s two Congressional seats, and there’s no need for this last-minute dash for the exits.

Compare that to the state’s governor’s race. Maine became the first state in the country to adopt ranked-choice voting in a 2016 ballot initiative, later ratified by the people again this June, after the state legislature attempted to gut the reform. But after a series of legislative and judicial maneuvers, RCV will be in effect for the U.S. Senate and House races, but not the governor’s election, even though the reform was inspired, in part, by that series of plurality governors.  That’s why Caron, a veteran Maine economic and political consultant, left the race this week. He was polling in the low single digits, and did not want to risk swinging the race to the Republican, businessman Shawn Moody.

The story of Walker’s exit in Alaska was more complicated. October polls showed conservative Republican State Senator Mike Dunleavy with a double-digit lead over both Walker and Begich, both stalled in the mid-20s. Walker gave up his candidacy in hopes that his voters would fall in line behind Begich, keep Dunleavy from the governor’s office, and preserve Alaska’s expanded Medicaid program, Walker’s signature achievement.

It’s possible to admire his sacrifice—and howl that it shouldn’t be necessary. If more states adopted RCV, far fewer of our elections would include unsatisfactory, binary choices. Voters would have more choices, and all of our winners would represent a genuine majority.

Think RCV is too hard to carry out in practice? Well, voters in Connecticut and Kansas need to face a much more complex algebraic problem before casting ballots for their next governor. In Connecticut, independent Oz Griebel just earned the endorsement of the state’s largest newspaper, the Hartford Courant, but remains mired in single digits behind two relatively unpopular major-party nominees.

Ned Lamont, the Democrat, leads in this blue state, but his advantage over Republican Bob Stefanowski is within the margin of error in a Quinnipiac poll this week. The state’s finances are a mess and departing Democrat Dannel Malloy is one of the most unpopular governors in the nation. Blue state liberals might consider Griebel, but don’t want to risk electing Stefanowski instead. Likewise, many fiscal conservatives might admire Griebel’s business acumen, but fear actually putting Lamont in office. The Courant’s editorial board may believe he’s the best suited for one of the toughest jobs in the country, but in polarized times, neither Democrats nor Republicans want to help elect the other guy. RCV would have allowed them all to take a longer look at Griebel.

In Kansas, meanwhile, 60 percent of voters would prefer a governor other than staunch Republican Kris Kobach, but the proponent of controversial voter fraud theories may eke out a plurality win nevertheless against Democrat Laura Kelly and independent Greg Orman, nonetheless.

Once again, if these states used ranked-choice voting, no one would play spoiler. The candidate who comes in third is simply eliminated. Those votes would get immediately reallocated to the voter’s second choice. If enough of Connecticut’s Stefanowski/Griebel backers selected the other candidate as their second choice, he’d win. If Lamont amassed enough second-choice votes to claim victory, however, he’d take office with a majority and a mandate, not a weak plurality. Lamont could take on the state’s severe fiscal crisis knowing that he had the support of more than 50 percent of voters. Likewise, if Orman and Kelly opposed Kobach, as a team, in Kansas, they’d likely win as well.

RCV would also help in Georgia’s gubernatorial battle between Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp. Georgia requires a runoff between the top two candidates, if no candidate clears 50 percent, and polls suggest that, regardless of who comes out on top, a Libertarian could deny Tuesday’s winner an outright victory. That would force everyone back to the polls in December, requiring Abrams—whose coalition depends on turning out voters who don’t always appear for the midterms—to get them to the polls a second time, ahead of the holidays.

This is not a partisan reform. There will be times when it might help Democrats, or aid Republicans, or boost independents. This is a reform for voters, and a reform that incentivizes politicians to campaign and govern beyond their bases. RCV is the most significant reform we could enact to give voters more meaningful choices and ensure winners with true majority support.

Candidates shouldn’t be dropping out, and offering voters fewer choices, just when most voters are beginning to pay attention. Likewise, there’s no need for voters to spend late October obsessing with polls and fretting a spoiler vote, or having to return a second time to the polls in November. The solution is as easy as 1, 2, 3.

Read more about DemocracyDemocratsElectionsPrimariesRepublicansvoting rights

David Daley is the author of Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy and a senior fellow at FairVote.

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