An Even Better Idea for Reforming Presidential Elections

Research report


Imagine if there was no possibility of being a “spoiler” in the general election for President. Bernie Sanders could run as an independent, as he has for most of his career. Donald Trump also may have run as an independent, allowing the Republicans to choose a candidate more acceptable to the majority of the party.

Then in November you could choose from Sanders, Clinton, Trump, a Republican Party candidate and third party candidates, free of worry about “spoilers,” “wasting your vote,” voting for the “lesser of two evils,” or any of the other problems that saddle us every four years with only two realistic choices.

Two choices. That’s just one more than you would have had in the Soviet Union or some dictatorship somewhere. Shouldn’t we do better than that?

Last month I offered a proposal to use ranked choice voting in the general election for the President, greatly reducing the possibility that any candidate would become a spoiler. Since then I’ve had an even better idea. Using the Bucklin system, an alternative form of ranked choice voting, would address the spoiler problem, is easy to understand, and is feasible with current voting technology. Continue Reading


Ranked Choice Voting Initiative Launched in Oregon

News report

rcv ballot 2

An initiative campaign has been launched in Benton County, Oregon, to elect the County Commissioners and Sheriff by ranked choice voting (RCV), also known as instant runoff voting.

RCV allows voters to rank the candidates for an office in order of preference. If no candidate gets a majority of the first place votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and those votes are transferred to each voter’s next choice. This process is repeated until a candidate gets a majority.

RCV frees voters to vote for their true first choice without the fear of “wasting” their vote. Benton County Commissioners are elected on a partisan ballot, unlike most elected county officials in Oregon. If the initiative passes, this will provide an opportunity to see whether the number votes for third party and independent candidates is affected by the changed voting format.

The chief petitioners are Dan Rayfield, State Representative for House District 16, and Blair Bobier, a Corvallis lawyer and long-time electoral reform activist. The initiative is intended as part of a long-term strategy to bring RCV to other Oregon elections and eventually institute it statewide. A Political Action Committee has been formed, an initiative petition filed, and a website is up (Better Ballot Benton).

The sponsors have endorsements from local elected officials and have consulted with the county clerk to verify that the county’s vote tabulation machines can handle RCV. About 3,000 valid signatures from Benton County registered voters will be needed by August to put the initiative on the November 2016 ballot. Continue Reading


A New Idea for Reforming Presidential Elections

Research report

voting box

The pathologies of our election system have been glaringly obvious for several Presidential election cycles, this year more than ever. Voter frustration with a two-party dominance propped up by our electoral laws has metastasized across the electorate.

Third party candidates like Ross Perot and Ralph Nader drew enthusiastic voter support in their campaigns, ultimately only to be crippled by the “spoiler” role. Now we have candidates best suited for independent candidacies—Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump—trying to run within the dominant parties but being resisted or openly opposed by party regulars.

Why can’t we have a real choice of a variety of candidates in the general election instead of the dilemmas of “spoilers” and intraparty warfare? Well, we can. The cause of these problems is “winner take all” plurality rules which herd candidates and voters into just two parties. I propose a simple reform to the general election of the President which will:

  • reduce the spoiler problem,
  • allow independent and third party candidates a fair opportunity to run,
  • free voters to vote for their real first choice of the candidates,
  • and insure majority support for the winner.

This can be accomplished by using ranked choice voting in the process of translating the popular vote in each state into electoral votes. And it doesn’t require special ballots, new election technology, changes to federal law, or buy-in by all the states to begin improving the process. Continue Reading


Where To Bring Ranked Choice Voting in Oregon

Research report


The roilings of the two dominant political parties by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have more in common than “voter anger.” Both stem from serious defects in our plurality voting system: vote splitting and spoilers.

In plurality voting a voter can choose only one candidate for an office, and whichever candidate gets the most votes wins. In the Republican primaries votes are being split between multiple similar candidates, thus allowing a very different candidate—Donald Trump—to come out the winner with a minority of the votes. (As of Super Tuesday he’s been receiving from 21.3% to 49.3% of the vote, averaging 34.6%.)

Because of vote splitting, candidates are usually pressured to drop out of the race and not be a “spoiler” for “taking away” votes from another candidate. To avoid being a spoiler in the general election, Bernie Sanders is running for the Democratic Party’s nomination instead of running as an independent. However, insurgent campaigns like Sanders’ risk resentments between the insurgents and the party regulars, antagonizing those who would otherwise be allies against a common enemy.

The vote splitting and spoiler defects are common in elections at various levels in the United States, most of which use plurality voting. But there are alternative democratic voting systems, one of which is ranked choice voting (RCV), also known as instant runoff voting. RCV can lessen the vote splitting and spoiler problems and has been slowly spreading to cities and counties across the U.S.

What are the opportunities for bringing RCV to elections in Oregon? This report identifies which elected offices in Oregon would be capable of being filled by RCV given current election technology. Continue Reading


Gaming the Vote

Book reviews

gaming the vote

Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren’t Fair (and What We Can Do About It) (2008)

“Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren’t Fair (and What We Can Do About It)” is an entertaining primer on the craziness of our usual method of running elections in this country and the various alternative methods proposed to replace it. Long on anecdotes and short on in-depth analysis, it whets the desire for electoral reform without making a definitive case for “What We Can Do About It.”

Our current electoral system is bedeviled by the “spoiler” effect, which can (and often does) result in a candidate winning even though a majority of voters are opposed to that candidate. The 2000 Presidential election is often presented as a spoiler election. (I would disagree, but it makes for a familiar illustration). George W. Bush won with a minority of the votes, even though a combined majority of voters for Ralph Nader and Al Gore were opposed to Bush.

There are plenty of other examples if you look for them, and the author, William Poundstone, is deft at picking the most colorful ones to make his point. The most literally colorful is the case of “the Blue Man,” whose skin turned blue from drinking what he believed to be a “natural” antibiotic. His hopeless 2006 campaign for U.S. Senator in Montana (he got 2.55% of the total vote) resulted in the Republican loss of a majority in the Senate.

Poundstone describes the shady maneuvering of politicians and their consultants to exploit this electoral flaw, but probably no reasonably intelligent observer needs to be convinced that something is wrong with our electoral system. The first section of the book describing the problem is thus overkill. It is the second part, on the proposed alternative electoral systems, that is the meat of the book.

He runs through the most prominent alternatives, doing a good job of making it clear how they differ and keeping the reader’s interest with stories of the history of electoral reform debates. He raises problems with each of them, lending weight to Professor Kenneth Arrow’s famous dictum that there is no perfect democratic electoral system. The consensus of academic voting theorists is that the system we now have may well be the worst of the lot. But what should we replace it with? Continue Reading