In ten states this year, real multi-candidate races developed for U.S. senator or governor.
The winner stood to be elected with less than a majority of the votes. And, without the third candidate in the race, the first-place finisher might have lost.
That’s nothing new in Maine. There were at least three serious candidates in nine of the past 10 elections for governor. There were majority winners in only two of the 10.
Three-way races for major office run against the grain of the American electoral system. The Founding Fathers envisaged two candidates running with the winner gaining majority support.
In a system based on two parties, a third candidate often produces minority rule. The average victor in races without a majority winner received less than 43 percent. Independent Angus King won in 1994 with only 35 percent of the vote.
In such races, one of the candidates, driven by ego and momentum, can turn out to be nothing more than the spoiler, distorting the electoral outcome.
We have three-candidate races, because one of the major parties splits into factions or a candidate offers a non-partisan alternative.
With the chances of multi-candidate elections growing, especially because of splits in the GOP, the time may have come to find a new way to deal with multi-candidate races. Three alternatives have emerged.
The first is to do nothing in the belief that, even with its drawbacks, the system functions well enough. Most states do that.
Or one candidate, facing the possibility of being no more than a spoiler, even inadvertently, can drop out.
In this year’s Kansas U.S. Senate race, the Democrat withdrew to avoid splitting the vote against the Republican incumbent. The Democrat also pulled out of the Alaska governor’s race, leaving it to a moderate Republican and his conservative GOP opponent.
But the Kansas and Alaska cases are unusual, making the chances of three dropping down to two unlikely as a pattern.
The preferred alternative, used in 11 states, is the runoff election. The two top vote getters face each other in a second election a few weeks later. That ensures a majority winner, who will have won a real head-to-head election contest.
Runoffs, even where possible, are relatively rare. Perhaps voters, aware of the possibility, cast their ballots for one of the obvious front-runners. This year’s sole runoff will be in the Louisiana U.S. Senate race.
The third alternative is called ranked voting. Voters can designate their second choices. The votes are recounted many times, and each recount eliminates the lowest vote getter and redistributes second-choice votes from that candidate to other candidates.
A popular second choice could defeat a candidate who had more first-place votes in the actual vote.
No state uses that system, but a few municipalities, including Portland, use it in races that are likely to have several candidates, not just three.
In Portland’s 2011 election, it took 15 rounds of recounts to come up with a mayor, the candidate who had led from the first count.
In the final recount, 18 percent of the votes did not count at all. In other words, for there to be a winner, almost one-fifth of the voters had to be eliminated. In a runoff, their votes could have changed the outcome.
Used in Minneapolis in 2012, the mayor’s race was won after 33 recounts by the same person who had been the winner on the first count.
Ranked voting may help in races with many candidates, but in congressional and governors elections, it might encourage even more candidates and further splintering.
Ranked voting is difficult to understand and can be gamed. Voters are not required to place all candidates in rank order, so supporters of “everybody’s second choice” can themselves provide no second choice. That’s called “bullet voting,” and democracy may be the victim.
The resulting mathematical games can end up far from majority-rule democracy. In fact, the winner will be a candidate who did not have majority voter support, just as happens today.
The main merit of ranked voting is that it costs less than runoffs. You pay less, but you get less. Runoffs allow voters to deal anew with a changed political situation. And runoffs, unlike ranked voting, are easy to understand, because they are simple democracy.
Ranked voting sounds appealing. It can work when there are so many candidates the vote is badly split. In three-candidates races, it cheats voters of a real choice.
Real democracy is worth the extra cost of a runoff.