It was one of the great nightmares of the Democratic Party: On the night of Nov. 7th, 2000, the Presidential Election between George W. Bush and Al Gore was a toss-up, with the final result dependent on the outcome in Florida. The final tally? Bush won the state, and therefore the presidency, by a margin of only 537 votes. As Democrats would lament for years afterward, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader received 97,488 votes in Florida — over 180 times the difference between Bush and Gore. To this day, many Democrats believe that Gore would have won the White House had Nader not been in the race, since Gore’s advocacy for pro-environment policies would likely have won over many Nader voters.
Concerns over similar ‘spoiler’ candidates have plagued the Democratic party since the 2000 election, springing up recently with Green Party nominee Jill Stein’s performance in the 2016 Presidential Election and former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s short-lived independent candidacy earlier this year. However, we usually ignore the problem of spoilers right where solutions (like ranked choice voting) are the most feasible: party primaries.
Let’s look at the 2020 Democratic Primary race over the past month. Right now, the race is divided between moderates — led by former Vice President Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana — and progressives led by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Voters tend to cluster in these two groups; for example, we could assume that a typical Sanders supporter would likely prefer Warren to Biden. This leaves the race highly susceptible to spoiler effects.
On the progressive side, Sanders and Warren are currently acting as spoilers for each other, since they split the progressive vote. We saw the effects of this phenomenon when Sanders suffered a heart attack in early October, leading to a drop in his polling numbers. Presumably, some of his voters switched over to Warren, which resulted in an immediate polling boost (to the point of briefly surpassing Biden in national polls). However, when Sanders quickly returned to the campaign trail — proving to some that his health concerns were not as serious as they had presumed — his polling numbers rebounded, and Warren saw a simultaneous decline. Throughout all of this, Biden’s numbers have remained largely unchanged, and he once again leads in national polls.
On the moderate side, we have seen the entry of a potential spoiler, as former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his candidacy on Sunday. As a moderate with good name recognition and millions of dollars at his disposal, Bloomberg could poach voters from Biden and Buttigieg, to the benefit of Warren and Sanders.
Doesn’t this all seem arbitrary? Clearly, Democrats should not determine the direction of their party based on the decision of one man or the heartbeat of another.
To fix the problem of spoilers, we need look no further than Bloomberg’s own city; this past month, New York City voters approved a ballot initiative on ranked choice voting. In the NYC system, voters rank up to five of their favorite candidates instead of choosing just one — for example, a hypothetical voter could create a ranking of: 1) Sanders, 2) Warren, 3) Buttigieg, 4) Biden. If a candidate were to receive more than 50 percent of all first choice votes, that candidate would win. If not, then the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated, and the votes for everyone who preferred this eliminated candidate are moved over to their second choice candidate. In our example, if Sanders received the fewest votes, then he would be eliminated, and the hypothetical vote shown above would move to Warren.
Proponents of RCV note that it is more democratic, since spoiler effects are no longer possible. In such a system, Bloomberg would pose no threat to other moderates, and progressives wouldn’t have to worry about Warren and Sanders splitting their votes. Citizens can also freely support less mainstream candidates like Andrew Yang ’96 without fearing that their vote would be wasted, since it was not cast for one of the front-runners. In addition, RCV should lead primary races to be less divisive, with candidates refraining from harshly attacking each other since they hope to be ranked second by supporters of their competitors.
Critics of RCV note that it could support the influence of elites over the general public, as elites are more likely to know all of the candidates and be able to rank them, thereby maximizing their personal influence. However, while this may be a real concern for little-known candidates in a local election, the extreme (or exhausting, if you like) amount of attention centered on presidential primary candidates should allow the vast majority of voters to develop a sense of their top choices.
While I have written from the perspective of Democrats due to the state of the 2020 campaign, spoiler candidates can distort the democratic process in both parties. In order to fix our primary process and make every vote count, let’s move to ranked-choice voting.
Greer Brigham ’20 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.