From the "Non-Majority Rule" Desk: Undemocratic Rules Produce Undemocratic Results -- Even With Majority Victories

by Chris Marchsteiner, The Non-Majority Rule Desk // Published September 28, 2010


This week at the Non-Majority Rule desk I’m going to focus on lessons from two important developments in statewide races: the U.S. Senate race in Alaska and the race for governor in New York. Recent developments in the two states’ races demonstrate another aspect of the dangers of plurality voting: How it can shortcut democracy even when majority victories are ultimately produced.

Rick Lazio had earned the Conservative Party nomination for governor, but was defeated in seeking also to be the nominee of the Republican Party. (New York has fusion voting, where candidates can run with the nomination of more than one party.) He dropped out of the gubernatorial race this week after the New York Republican Party offered him an uncontested seat as a State Supreme Court judge. A heated New York Times editorial blasted the move this week, calling it a “faux candidacy” and a “cynical effort by the Republicans to get [Lazio] out of the way of the Republican nominee for governor, Carl Paladino.” 

The Times should be applauded in part for its indictment of undemocratic tactics that parties play to avoid spoilers.  

“The move not only deprives voters of a political alternative to Mr. Paladino and the Democrat, Andrew Cuomo, which is, of course, exactly what the Republican party wanted, it also cheapens the electoral process and leaves citizens even more despondent about the ways in which the system is fixed for insiders.” 

Yet the Times addresses the symptom without analyzing the disease itself. Yes, Lazio and the Republicans have played a cynical game at the cost of offering voters a substantial choice in the election, but they would not have done so if candidates were required to achieve a majority victory through the use of instant runoff voting. As it is, a majority victory may still result from the race, but at the unfortunate cost of depriving voters of a prominent candidate through unsavory political dealings.  

Alaska’s U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski is facing an uphill battle in her bid to keep her seat after her upset defeat in the Republican primary to Joe Miller. She faces both the mechanical challenge of having people write her name in successfully, but also perhaps an even bigger challenge in avoiding the tag of “spoiler.” With Strom Thurmond as the only write-in candidate to ever be elected to the U.S. Senate and no precedent for a write-in success in Alaska, even Murkowski herself acknowledged that her chances were slim. Since Washington Republicans have decided to throw their full weight behind Republican nominee Joe Miller, Murkowski has ironically emerged as the underdog challenging the establishment candidate. She has a strong lead over Miller in terms of fundraising and name recognition -- and likely ability to defeat Miller in a one-on-one race among all voters. But Murkowski is burdened with devoting much of her time to the ludicrous but necessary effort to ensure voters spell her name correctly when they write her name in on the ballot, and the resulting perception that she can’t win. These twin barriers to true democratic choice parallel the issues in New York. Even if a majority victor emerges from the three-way race, can it really be called democratic?