by Steve Showen, former MDGP co-chair
Calls for Democrat Kendrick Meek to step down from the U.S. Senate race because he could dilute Independent Crist's chances of beating Republican Marco Rubio are an ironic inversion of the usual "spoiler" scenario. Here a mainstream party candidate is cast as the spoiler, threatening the success of an independent candidate. It's a special irony that a Democratic party-machine candidate should be pinned with the "spoiler" label, considering the Democratic Party had blamed its failure in election 2000 on the Green Party and Ralph Nader.
Spoiling is a matter of perspective. In our PLURALITY voting system, when more than two candidates compete, each candidate can view one of the others as spoiling his chances. It is usually justified on the basis that only two (Republican or Democrat) are legitimate deserving candidates, and the third is an interloper who really has no right to screw things up. Crist justifies his run by claiming to hold his former mainstream party's banner against a takeover by extreme right wing forces. Rubio's justification is that Crist is a deserter from his own party who is spoiling Rubio's chances. Meek's mainstream party legitimacy is eroded by his lower standing in the polls against Crist, who is anything but an outsider independent candidate, being a prominent established creature of Republican politics. A truly independent or third party candidate with popular support would have unquestionably become the butt of this race from the start.
The crux of the spoiler tiff in Florida's Senate race is that assuming the combined votes for both Crist and Meek represent the views of the majority who oppose Rubio they therefore should equate to a defeat of Rubio. But that is not the case, because no single candidate reaps the benefit of their combined votes. A follow up runoff election is sometimes used to achieve that, but being held weeks later it costs more, and fewer voters turn out. Since our plurality election system awards the win to whoever gets the most votes, whether a majority is reached or not, Rubio could win with just over a third of the vote, the majority opposing. The more candidates running, the less it takes to win. In a 5 way race it could take as little as 21% to win, with an odd 79% opposing! Our plurality voting system engenders minority rule when more than two candidates run for a single seat.
Spoiling is an inherent flaw in our plurality voting system, sometimes called "first past the post" or "winner take all." Voters who prefer the independent candidate face a quandary in a three way race. Either settle for less by voting for the lesser evil mainstream candidate, or vote their preference and risk splitting the vote and electing the worse evil. Adding insult to injury, the winner may not have won a majority, precisely because the opposing majority was split between the other candidates. Hence we hear calls for some candidates to leave the playing field, that others might win. Instead of opening up the game to more players, more voices and a wider debate, we are constrained to the two dominant party offerings. All else is perceived as a threat, rather than genuine democratic discourse. Consequently, our system lends itself to those who would wish to constrain the debate, obscure and frustrate the will of the electorate, and control the process.
Better Ways to Vote
There are systems designed to handle multiple candidates, eliminate spoilers and fear-based voting, and render winners with clear majority support. Most notably, a ranked choice system called Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) is becoming popular for its ability to resolve these conundrums, having been in practice for a century by a number of organizations, municipalities and nations. As noted above, traditional runoff elections can help settle such issues, but cost more and fewer voters participate. IRV is cheaper and more democratic, because it does it all in one election where voter turn out is greatest.
With IRV, voters simply rank their candidate preferences, 1, 2, 3, etc. If any candidate receives a majority of first choice votes, he or she wins. If no one receives a majority, the candidate with the lowest votes is eliminated, and the second choices of people who voted for him or her are tabulated. The process continues until a majority of votes accumulate behind one candidate.
The tone of IRV races is less combative, and more attention is given to real issues, as candidates are competing for second-choice votes also. The true support for Independent and third party candidates becomes apparent, because voters can express their support without fear of splitting or spoiling the vote.
It is unacceptable that a nation that prides itself in being a beacon of democracy to the world continues to use a dysfunctional PLURALITY voting system, incapable of rendering a meaningful verdict in our changing political milieu. Other "spoiling" elements endemic to our system include the huge amounts of corporate money and influence, our party-controlled gerrymandered electoral districts, exclusionary debates, and restrictive ballot access requirements, which I won't elaborate on in this article. All effectively cut "we the people" out of the process, rendering ours a "cosmetic democracy." It's imperative that America employ all the tools at her disposal to both retain and evolve our democracy, especially in times of political ferment.
As illustrated by Florida's Senate race, by the number of Florida's NPA gubernatorial candidates, and by the number of single seat primary races with multiple candidates in the 2010 election*, the time is ripe for IRV across the boards. All qualified candidates have a legitimate place in our debates and in our elections, rather than have THEIR chances spoiled by a rigged system controlled by the two mainstream parties. Voters have a right to a spectrum of choices and to vote freely for their dreams without fear. It's time to bring Florida's election system into the 21st century. Credit the city of Sarasota for showing the way by becoming Florida's first city to do adopt IRV.
IRV empowers more voices to compete equitably without spoiling, and it enables candidates who have the support of the majority to win.
To learn more about IRV, go to www.fairvote.org.