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OP-ED | No More Spoilers? Instant Runoff Voting Makes Third Parties Viable, Improves Democracy

by | Jun 12, 2015 12:30pm () Comments | Commenting has expired | Share
Posted to: Analysis, Civil Liberties, Election Policy, Equality, Opinion, Millennial Voices

Minnesota Public Radio
Connecticut’s political system is broken. To understand why, we need to look at the way most American elections are structured.

In Connecticut, like most of the country, we use a first-past-the-post voting system. This means each voter gets to cast one vote, and the candidate who ends up with the most votes wins. At first glance, this seems to make sense in its simplicity and omnipresence, but what it does is create a two-party system through tactical voting.

Voters have an incentive to vote for the candidate they most prefer out of the two leading contenders, since doing so will maximize the power of their vote. This gives rise to what’s known as the “spoiler effect,” where third party candidates end up taking votes from the major party candidate who most closely adheres to their views.

The most famous case of the spoiler effect is the 2000 presidential election, when Green Party nominee Ralph Nader took votes that might otherwise have gone to Democrat Al Gore, thereby allowing Republican George W. Bush to win the presidency. Spoilers cut both ways, however; in 1992, Bill Clinton may have had independent candidate Ross Perot to thank for his victory.

Under our current voting system, third parties aren’t only unsuccessful, they’re actually detrimental to the ideology they espouse. In a first-past-the-post system, minor parties make it more likely that the major party they agree with the least will win. As a result, third party campaigns are typically ideological crusades, kamikaze attacks on a major party, or publicity stunts.

This matters to Connecticut because our two-party system isn’t giving us the government we deserve. I’m a Democrat, and I’m proud to be one, but I know our government doesn’t work well when one party is able to run roughshod over the policymaking process. Connecticut needs and deserves other viable political options, as a check on the Democrats.

Unfortunately, the Republicans are ill-suited to provide that check. Their national brand is so toxic, their standing in the public eye so poisoned, that they cannot be considered a sufficient alternative to the Democrats in and of themselves.

But we know Connecticut is open to the idea of more options politically. In 2006, moderate Sen. Joe Lieberman was defeated in a brutal Democratic primary, but went on to win re-election as a third-party candidate. And in 1990, former Sen. Lowell Weicker was elected governor running as a third-party candidate. Weicker and Lieberman prove that Connecticut voters are ready and willing to consider other parties, but they were only able to get over the hurdles erected by our first-past-the-post system because they had both risen high in politics as members of one of the major parties before breaking out on their own.

What Connecticut really needs is a multi-party system on every level, to stimulate civic engagement and provide options from all parts of the political spectrum. But as we’ve seen, our current system makes third parties a non-starter except in the rarest of cases.

Luckily, there is a way to fix our system and give our state the politics we deserve. It’s called instant-runoff voting. Instead of voting for just one candidate, voters rank the candidates in order of preference. Then the ballots are counted based on each voter’s first choice.

If one candidate secures a majority, the counting is over and that candidate wins. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and ballots cast for that candidate are recounted and added to the totals of the remaining candidates based on who is ranked next on each ballot. The counting continues like this until one candidate secures a majority.

To get a sense of what this might look like, take Connecticut’s 1994 gubernatorial election.

In reality, John Rowland, the Republican golden boy and aspiring felon, won with 36.2 percent of the vote. He beat Democrat Bill Curry by about four points. But finishing behind Rowland and Curry were Eunice Groark, Weicker’s incumbent lieutenant governor, and independent candidate Tim Scott.

Together, Groark and Scott combined for over 30 percent of the vote. If the 1994 election had been held using instant-runoff voting instead of first-past-the-post, Scott and Groark voters would have had the opportunity to indicate their second preference, and the race between Rowland and Curry might well have gone differently.

Admittedly, it’s a more complicated system. But it’s also a vast improvement on what we’ve got now. Instant-runoff voting ends the spoiler effect forever, and allows third-party candidates to run viable campaigns without endangering the success of the major party with which they most agree.

In time, those third parties would begin to occasionally win elections, and we would have a democracy where voters can choose from more than just two options. That’s a reform deserving support from liberals, conservatives, and all those in between.

Kiernan Majerus-Collins, 19, is a student at Bates College and a Democratic Town Committee member from West Hartford. He can be reached on Facebook

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

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(17) Archived Comments

posted by: osemasterofdoom | June 12, 2015  1:24pm


Such arrogance in someone so young.  Connecticut Republicans don’t need your commentary on the state of our party.  We’re quite capable of coming with our own adjectives, thank you very much. 

As for the rest of it, all hail another left-wing attempt to tie the electoral system into knots, all in the pursuit of some fantasy of perfection that will never happen.  There’s a reason One Person - One Vote has been around so long: it works.  To paraphrase what Benjamin Franklin said about Democracy, it’s the worst system ever conceived… except for every other system that’s been conceived.

posted by: New Haven Raven | June 12, 2015  4:09pm

I find your assertion that the Republicans can’t provide checks to the Democrats to be quite close-minded. Where I live in Connecticut, the Republican brand is not toxic at all, but rather quite the opposite. When the state government continues to tax and spend recklessly, it is the Connecticut Republicans who have attempted to be that ‘check’ of which you speak and have done an admirable job. Plus, if the brand were so tarnished, then why did it just take the Senate in Washington after years of rule-under-an-iron-fist by Harry Reid? Was it because people were happy with the Democrats? I don’t always agree with some of the Republicans in Washington, but I can certainly say that Democrats like Nancy Pelosi, Jan Schakowsky, Rosa DeLauro, John Conyers, and Chuck Schumer have done an exceptionally poor job and been just as hyper-partisan and toxic, if not more, than some of the most conservative Republicans (and been there way too long).

Your idea isn’t bad - but enough with the painfully partisan rhetoric. The last thing we need is another Ronan Farrow.

posted by: MuleTime | June 12, 2015  4:11pm

Kiernan is right, a multiple party system does increase engagement. The problem is, that engagement wouldn’t be from “A Connecticut Party” or “Connecticut for Lieberman” it would be from Nazis, Communists, Anarchists, Theocrats, etc,etc. All these parties-far-right, far-left, single issue-would make governing by majority practically impossible. A different majority would have to form for every single vote. We don’t have a parlimentary constitution, no one would lose power by losing votes or after a no confidence vote. The two party system works. Let’s keep it.

posted by: kiernanmc | June 12, 2015  7:49pm


@New Haven Raven

Obviously I’m not a big fan of Connecticut Republicans. I agree with them sometimes, but generally I think they’re not right. That’s why I’m a Democrat. But my comments aren’t meant as a partisan attack; the state GOP is faced with a brand that is too far to the right to realistically compete in Connecticut. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, our state is significantly more left-wing than the country as a whole, and while the GOP message may be resonating nationwide, it hasn’t done so here.


I’m sure there would be some extreme parties, but in an IRV system it would be hard to see them gaining much traction. Remember, IRV is not the same thing as proportional representation. If the Connecticut Nazi Party ran candidates for the state House, they would be hard pressed to find a district where a majority of voters would find them acceptable (because, remember, IRV requires a majority in order to be elected). Meanwhile, it seems entirely likely that we would see the rise of a moderate party, as well as a party to the left of the Democrats. The moderate party would compete in what are now swing districts, and the leftists would compete in what are now solid Democratic seats. That seems like the most plausible outcome to me.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS | June 12, 2015  9:08pm

Here is a better one.Not just use Instant Runoff Voting.Also adding   PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION.The basic approach of proportional representation is simple: legislators are elected in multimember districts instead of single-member districts, and the number of seats that a party wins in an election is proportional to the amount of its support among oters. So if you have a 10-member district and the Republicans win 50% of the vote, they receive five of the ten seats. If the Democrats win 30% of the vote, they get three seats; and if a third party gets 20% of the vote, they win two seats.

posted by: Diogenese | June 12, 2015  9:38pm

The Republican brand is “so toxic” that they ... held control of the House, gained the Senate, and many statehouses.

posted by: bob8/57 | June 13, 2015  9:21am


This will never happen in Connecticut. The moderates won’t go for it and the Republican’s stock-in-trade is self deception about how they’re perceived and lies about their white supremacist motives for keeping down the vote and taxes regressive.

Aside from those minor obstacles the piece was as well written as it was reasoned. Looking forward to reading more from you.

posted by: BMS | June 13, 2015  9:37am

Good idea that will never happen.

posted by: SocialButterfly | June 13, 2015  1:15pm

@kienanmnc: As long as Democrats’ own the stay at home government-paid food stamps and disability pensions voting class working taxpayers’are the minority, thanks to voters like you. Socialist Democratic freebie voters are ruining this country thanks to the billionaires’ who control Barack Obama and our congress. We are already at a point of no return and are the world’s biggest debtor thanks to your Democratic Party prosperity. China is looking to take our land for the massive debt we have with them, and not paying back.

posted by: MuleTime | June 13, 2015  2:02pm

Kiernan, I do understand how IRV works. My crtiticism is this (1) The idea that a far right wing party would not emerge is naive. Nazis don’t need to call themselves Nazis to be Nazis (or Fascists, etc.) In some assembly districts the issue of immigration alone would spark the creation of a far right party that could absolutely get representation in the House. (2) There wouldn’t be one far left party, there would be many. I could take a walk in New Haven and in 2 hours find you a mixed bag of Anrachists, Trotskyists, Maosists, Social Democrats, who all hate eachother. With no comintern-like organization to push them together, they would never even form a relible left wing bloc. (3) No Center party would emerge, the Republicans and the Deomcrats, being the established, recognizable parties, would occupy the center. (4) I made this point before but it bears repeating, a 3+ party governemnt would not function. There would never be a clear concensus about who controls the assembly. Who would be the majority if every bill which gets passed, gets passed by a diffent coalition of parties? In that type of government how would you ever determine who should be the Speaker, Majority Leader, Minority Leader, or President Pro-Tem? The governor would veto 90% of the bills he saw, because these multiple parties would mae it nearly impossible for him to negotite with the legislature.

posted by: Luther Weeks | June 13, 2015  2:42pm

Luther Weeks

There are several issues that make IRV less than claimed 1) It requires a more educated voter to understand a much bigger ballot.  If it really results in say double the number of candidates for each municipal race, then we would likely need a full three page ballot even if we let people only vote for their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd candidate in single vote races, and say 18 in a typical town council of 9.  3) Our optical scanners can’t count such races, in a close race it can take days or weeks to count - and in CT our officials claim they cannot count accurately our current much simpler ballots. 4) IRV does not do what it claims, it takes a bit to understand, but it is still a crap-shoot for voters as sometimes, not voting for their chosen candidate as 1st will actually be the winning strategy.  That is why some towns that have tried it have backed off.  As far as I know, no entity bigger than a city has tried it in the U.S..  It would be quite a logistic challenge for a state, and much harder to protect against electonic theft.

posted by: Warren D SMith | June 13, 2015  7:43pm

Your goals are laudable but unfortunately you forgot a key component of journalism: investigating the actual facts,
and not just mindlessly trusting a 1-sided source.  Does IRV help third parties? No. Actual fact: the Australian House has been elected by IRV for 80+ years, and last 4 elections cycles (600 races total) elected just 1 third party member.  Comparable 2-party domination in IRV seats to USA. Every Australian party we checked wants to get rid of IRV:
Does IRV eliminate the spoiler effect? No.  It still exhibits new kinds of spoiler (plus other problematic) effects:

Are there better voting systems? Yes. Plurality and IRV are generally recognized as two of the worst voting systems.  Recently Burlington Vermont unfortunately fell for some of the same pro-IRV propaganda to their regret (then repealed it having wasted many years):

A comparatively simple and good voting system is RANGE VOTING,
and the only times it has been used, 2-party domination did not occur.
It is both better and simpler than IRV, and
poll study indicates people would actually enact it if given the chance:

posted by: robn | June 14, 2015  7:32am

I don’t have a really high opinion about the IQ of average voters but if they’re not smart enough to understand the meaning of “first choice”, “second choice”, “third choice” etc, God help us.

As far as optical readers are concerned, no sweat; fill in dots for the aforementioned choices and the optical readers will read them.

posted by: Luther Weeks | June 14, 2015  8:48am

Luther Weeks

Robin, you obviously have not been an election official and seen the actual voted ballots and the questions voters ask. 

You are of course correct that it would be easy to create optical scanners that could count and record IRV votes in a single polling place.  But the ones we have in Connecticut cannot, and most if not all federally certified scanners/software cannot. However, its more than scanners doing it, it is accurately collecting all the choices across the state or whatever jurisdiction is involved in the race. Also if it is close, several elimination rounds should be manually recounted to make sure the elimination is accurate.  None of this is as simple as it sounds for voters, for officials, for candidates, for computers, and for those that do not take the time to look at all the details.

As I said it is a challenge for election officials in Connecticut to count our current ballots accurately (hard to believe, yet they take that position and provide evidence for it every year).  Counting an IRV race in a recount or an audit would be a much bigger challenge. If you are skeptical or want to change this, become an election official in your town and then become a Certified Moderator.

posted by: kiernanmc | June 14, 2015  11:09am


Instant runoff voting is probably not the best way to elect a legislature, but it is the best way to elect a legislature if you want to continue to have districts. THREEFIFTHS is right, proportional representation would be better, but many people like the idea of continuing to have a legislator who is “theirs.” I would support, however, a switch to party-list proportional representation, like Israel uses.

But there are other elections where proportional representation can’t work. You can’t proportionally elect a governor, for example, or a senator. In these instances, Connecticut is better off switching to IRV from first-past-the-post. And even if there is a theoretically better way of electing our state legislature, IRV is an improvement on what we’ve got now.

posted by: joemanc | June 15, 2015  10:14am

I live in an overwhelmingly Republican CT small town and even the Democrats cross endorse some of our candidates for local office…but we’re too toxic…sigh…

As far as your contention that Republicans are too far right in CT - that is laughable. Many voting Republicans will tell you that the state Republicans in office have been and are too far left! Just witness the explosion of government spending and debt under Rell and now Malloy - see the difference? I don’t.

posted by: Politijoe | June 16, 2015  10:12am


Kiernan, good article and well written. I think you provide interesting food for thought and created a great dialog, looking forward to hearing more ideas.

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