Lewis Carroll, who wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, thought a lot about elections.
A mathematician as well as a writer, he disliked plurality elections. The candidate winning the most votes, but less than a majority, would have been rejected by most voters. That could happen with three candidates or more. Carroll, the penname of Charles Dodgson, failed to come up with a good solution.
Plurality elections produce minority winners. The candidate finishing after the top two may be a “spoiler.” Without races limited to two candidates, spoilers are inevitable.
A spoiler ruins the smooth running of elections, because that candidate may distort the will of the voters. Why are there spoilers, people who have no realistic chance of winning but must understand they can affect the outcome?
Some spoilers are shams, and run to support one candidate by drawing votes away from another. Some run to gain a wider audience for their views, even hoping their showing might lead to a new party. Some seem to think that lightning will strike, and voters will suddenly rush toward them.
Here’s an example of the spoiler effect. In 1992, Ross Perot ran for president as an independent, appealing to Republican voters more than to Democrats. He drew so many votes from President George H.W. Bush in Maine that Democrat Bill Clinton carried the state and Bush, despite his Maine connections, finished third.
In 2000, Ralph Nader probably cost Al Gore the presidential election by siphoning off Gore votes in Florida and Oregon. A classic spoiler was Eliot Cutler in the 2014 Maine governor’s race, who reneged on his promise to drop out if he trailed.
This year, Alan Caron, independent candidate for governor, made the same promise and, in a classy move, kept it. So did the potential spoiler in Arizona’s U.S. Senate contest.
Voters could see the possible impact of spoilers all across the country. Maine is gaining the national spotlight, because it alone uses ranked choice voting to determine the winner in federal elections.
Ranked choice voting has been called instant runoff voting, because second choice votes for a first round loser may be instantly reassigned to other candidates. It lacks the second campaign that accompanies a real runoff. Depending on your viewpoint, it either enshrines spoilers or neutralizes them.
Gail Collins, a New York Times columnist, last week told the world about the Maine, writing, “Why didn’t anybody think of this before?” Second District GOP Rep. Bruce Poliquin, afraid of losing his seat thanks to ranked choice voting, launched a federal court challenge to it.
The combined effect of Poliquin’s challenge and Collins’ column may bring the system onto the national stage.
In 2011, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco tipped its hat to Carroll and provided an excellent analysis of plurality, run-offs and ranked choice elections. Each had defects. Were ranked choice voting issues great enough to endanger the constitutional rights of voters?
If there were big problems, the Court said it would apply “strict scrutiny,” meaning it would have to order less harmful ways of accomplishing the same purpose. But if the possible harm was relatively small, the Court need not go that far.
While not weighing the relative effect of various election systems, the Appeals Court, the highest court yet to consider ranked choice voting, found any harm was small, meaning the new system could be used. Poliquin’s appeal challenged this conclusion.
The Appeals Court’s impartial analysis of the system was thorough. This week, the U.S. District Court denied Poliquin’s bid to stop the law. A final federal court decision, if it sustains earlier findings, could lead to broader national adoption of ranked choice voting.
Ranked choice voting would not eliminate hopeful spoilers. Unless the requirements for entering the race are raised, it might even encourage them. This year, a nonresident ran third in the Second District election, needing only 2,000 signatures to get on the ballot. Meanwhile, the in-district Democrat had to win a costly primary.
Major-party candidates mostly ignore potential spoilers, probably fearful of drawing more attention to them. Campaigns are so busy bashing one another that they often miss the possible effect of also-rans.
Candidates should campaign more openly on the potential effect of spoilers. Ignoring them hasn’t worked. States should make it tougher for potential spoilers to run, because the process is now biased in their favor. States might also consider adopting runoffs.
Carroll was wise. He knew elections are not a whimsical wonderland, but a real battleground where the rules of political war can determine winners.