From the "Non-Majority Rule" Desk: Plurality Rules Cause Voters to Abandon Their True Preferences

by Chris Marchsteiner, The Non-Majority Rule Desk // Published October 20, 2010

As November approaches, several major races for governor and the U.S. Senate have three candidates polling in the double digits, with no candidate close to a majority. That fact and likely ultimate outcome in several races shows the defects of a plurality, vote-for-one system where the majority can split its votes and lose. But plurality voting also creates an ongoing problem for voters who end up abandoning their true preferences.

In some states we’re starting to see evidenced of the “spoiler impact” – sharp declines in support for significant candidates who have been polling well, but not well enough that voters thought they could win. As FairVote’s research shows, many voters will abandon their first choice if they conclude that their favorite candidate can’t win and that the choice among the remaining candidates is important enough for them to support a more likely winner and not “waste” their vote. Thus, although independent Tim Cahill at one point polled well over 20% in the Massachusetts governor’s race, the New York Times now has him polling in single digits. As reported at the non-majority rule desk, even Cahill’s own running mate has abandoned him to endorse the Republican nominee. 

Cahill is an example of how most often the victims of the spoiler impact are independents and third parties – such minor parties are called “third” for a reason. The notable drop in support for these less prominent candidates is indicative of the pragmatism and strategic considerations underlying voters’ choices. But one unusual feature of this election season is that the October desertion of candidates with little chance of victory is providing a direct hit on the major parties as well.  The perilous state of  Democrat Kendrick Meek’s U.S. Senate candidacy in Florida and Republican Dan Maes’ candidacy in Colorado illustrates two points: first, the plurality voting system forces voters to choose between candidates with a strong chance of winning regardless of their personal preferences; second, the strength of this undemocratic reality is so great that elections might even force major party candidates from a race, or at least result in a sharp decline in support. Because plurality voting makes voters choose between two top candidates, the perception that a candidate can win matters—and it can make or break a candidate’s chances. Even worse, it obscures voters’ real preferences altogether as support fluctuates among candidates not because of their policy preferences, but because of their perceived ability to win.

Meek is increasingly being cast a spoiler in his Senate campaign in Florida, and for good reason according to a recent poll--56% of those voting for Meek said they would vote for Charlie Crist if Meek dropped out of the race. Polls generally show Republican Mario Rubio at about a 44%, independent (and sitting governor) Charlie Crist at 31% and Meek at 23%. Meek’s last place status has led some members of his own party to turn on him. Former President Bill Clinton is stumping for Meek as a way of maintaining unity within the Democratic Party, but Robert Kennedy recently campaigned in Florida for Crist, calling on Meek to step down. With most Meek supporters likely to migrate to Crist, his relative performance may be the decisive fact in the election.

In Colorado, Republican Dan Maes’ situation in the gubernatorial race is already far more desperate. Some polls have had him as low as 13%, well behind Democrat John Hickenlooper and Constitution Party (and former Republican Congressman) Tom Tancredo. A poor performance would affect not only his candidacy, but the entire Republican Party. Because Colorado law dictates that a party cannot retain major party status if it polls under 10% in a race, a single digit outcome for Maes would affect Republicans in both the 2012 and 2014 election. Minor parties in Colorado are placed farther down the ballot, including in the presidential race, and because their nominees more often cannot run in primaries, they are not allowed to raise as much money. But on the other hand, the worse Maes does, the more likely that Tancredo will win.

The Wall Street Journal on October 18 featured a post on the state of third party and independent candidates. In addition to Cahill, the piece mentions Eliot Cutler of Maine and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island as minor candidates whose chances are “evaporating” as a result of close races and close election dates, although Chafee’s poll results have fluctuated wildly. Cutler’s share of the vote is hovering around 14%. But the Maine gubernatorial race still remains very close; Republican Paul LePage polls at 32.9% and Democrat Libby Mitchell at 28%. The two states that are more fluid right now are Alaska, where Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s independent bid for re-election as a write-in has created uneven polls, some of which put her in the lead, and Minnesota, where Independence Party nominee Tom Horner, running for governor, seems to be gaining in popularity and just this week picked up the endorsement of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. In 1998, voters elected his party’s nominee for governor that year, Jesse Ventura.

Stay tuned for another tumultuous week at the non-majority rule desk.