Joe Dellosa


Winner-takes-all approach isn't serving well anymore

Notes & Context

I wrote this op-ed towards the end of the 2010 U.S. Senate race in Florida. This was the version of the op-ed as submitted; the version that ran in the Palm Beach Post was about 300 words shorter and had some stylistic changes.

(Sadly, the shorter version was edited in such a way that made it sound like virtually every other argument in favor of voting system reform. That isn't really too big a deal—voting system reform is worth talking about, regardless of how original the talking sounds—but it's still a bit of a bummer for me.)

If there’s one silver lining in the convoluted Cerberus of a U.S. Senate race between Marco Rubio, Charlie Crist, and Kendrick Meek, it’s this: Maybe now we’ll start taking ideas for reforming our voting system more seriously.

The voting system that will be used in the upcoming Senate election is “plurality voting.” Each voter will pick one candidate, and the candidate who receives the most votes wins.

This Senate race is illustrating the problems with this system: With three candidates running, Florida’s next senator will probably be elected without winning a majority. Most polls, including the latest from Quinnipiac, show Rubio in the lead, but with less than 50 percent; Nate Silver, the New York Times election forecaster, projects a Rubio victory with 44.5 percent of the vote, and Crist and Meek splitting the remaining vote at 31.1 percent and 23.4 percent respectively.

This has caused some Meek supporters to consider voting tactically—that is, voting for a candidate (in this case, Crist) who isn’t their true choice. And Meek himself has been facing pressure to drop out of the race to prevent Rubio from coasting to victory. Clearly, voters suppressing their true intentions and candidates suppressing their candidacies are unacceptable consequences of a flawed system.

One of the most frequently proposed alternative voting systems is “instant runoff voting,” in which voters are asked to rank the candidates in order of their preference. For instance, a Meek supporter might rank Meek 1st, Crist 2nd, and so on. The votes are tallied, and if a candidate receives a majority of 1st votes, that candidate wins. If not, the candidate who received the fewest 1st votes is eliminated, and their votes are transferred to the candidates voters designated as their next choice. The process continues until a candidate wins a majority.

While an improvement over plurality voting, instant runoff voting has its own problems. For instance, there are mathematical scenarios in which voters have an incentive to game the system by ranking candidates in an order other than their true preferences in order to boost the chances of their first choice. Additionally, because of the more complicated tallying process in which every vote is contingent on everybody else’s, counting (and, God forbid, recounting) votes may become a statewide logistical nightmare that’s prone to both human and computer error. And perhaps most significantly of all, voters may simply get confused by the system.

Instead, a better alternative is “approval voting.” Instead of being told to vote for a single candidate, voters would be instructed to vote for as many or as few candidates as they like. The candidate who receives the most votes wins.

It’s a simple and elegant system that solves many of the problems with plurality voting: Voters would be able to support a trailing candidate they most favor without harming an also-acceptable candidate that has a greater chance of winning by casting a vote for both on the same ballot. (“True believers” would still be able to vote for a single candidate, of course.) And third-party and independent candidates could run without worrying about siphoning votes away from a politically-similar opponent, thereby handing the election to a politically-opposite opponent.

There are other advantages to approval voting. Such a system may force candidates to run more positive, issues-oriented campaigns, since merely trashing one’s opponents is likely insufficient to win an electorate’s approval. Approval voting would also help candidates without a huge electoral war chest have a better chance of being viable contenders—or, at least, offer voters the ability to register quantifiable support for those candidates’ ideas. And most importantly, the system could favor candidates who work to build broad, consensus-based support rather than those who pander to one half of the electorate while ignoring the other.

While in the case of this year’s Senate race (and in the 2000 presidential election in which Ralph Nader drew votes away from Al Gore) such electoral reform may help liberals, improving our voting system is an apolitical issue that benefits all Americans. Political discussion, after all, is smarter and more thoughtful when more voices are able to be heard, and sometimes finding the best solutions means looking beyond the two-party duopoly.

And with the rise of the Tea Party movement, conservatives and libertarians have every reason to support electoral reform that helps non-establishment candidates. In fact, there are at least two major races in which the Tea Party and establishment Republican candidates are splitting the vote in a way that may allow the Democrat to snatch victory without a majority: the Senate race in Alaska, in which incumbent Republican Lisa Murkowski is waging a write-in candidacy against Republican Joe Miller that could lift Democrat Scott McAdams to victory, and the gubernatorial race in Colorado, in which ultraconservative Tom Tancredo is leading Republican Dan Maes but trailing Democrat John Hickenlooper.

Here’s the bottom line: Anybody who is qualified to hold office should be able to run for office without being called a spoiler, and voters should be able to cast a ballot for the candidate they most favor without feeling that their vote was wasted. That’s the essence of an honest, responsive democracy—a democracy that isn’t beholden to party interests or entrenched power—and it’s about time the way we vote reflected this.

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