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