“Thou shalt not vote for more than one candidate in a given race,” it says nowhere in the Bible. Our system of voting is not an immutable law of nature, nor a divine commandment, nor the outcome of common sense.
It is instead a longstanding legal and cultural tradition — one that we can and should change.
Consider a practical example with the problems of voting based on this year’s ballot. I hope and expect that Wayne Williams, a leader in election security, will win the race for Colorado Secretary of State (despite some peculiar spending habits). Yet I am going to vote for one of Williams’ opponents, a candidate who has zero chance of winning the election.
I’m voting for Blake Huber of the Approval Voting Party.
Do I worry that, by “wasting my vote” for this political unknown, I might tip the scales from Williams to his Democratic opponent? Sure. But that dynamic is exactly why I’m voting for Huber — because the voting reforms that he advocates would solve such problems.
True, in this particular race, no minor-party candidate is likely to earn enough votes to affect the outcome. But consider the very real problem of minor-party candidates potentially “spoiling” races:
- In 2000, Ralph Nader, running with the Green Party, probably pulled enough votes from Al Gore in Florida to throw the presidential election to George W. Bush.
- The Republican lead in the state Senate is razor thin. In 2016, Democrat Rachel Zenzinger beat Republican Laura Woods by 1,478 votes. The Libertarian earned 5,112 votes. It’s plausible that the Libertarian joining the race cost Woods the seat.
- The same year, votes for the Libertarian candidate for state House District 17 exceeded the difference by which the Republican lost. (Of course we cannot assume that every vote that went for the Libertarian otherwise would have gone for the Republican.)
- In 2014, Democrat Kerry Donovan beat Republican Don Suppes for state Senate by 1,301 votes. The Libertarian earned 2,374 votes.
- That same year, Democrat Cheri Jahn beat Republican Larry Queen by 439 votes. The Libertarian earned 5,018 votes. In this case, the Libertarian almost certainly flipped the outcome. (Jahn is now an independent.)
- Also in 2014, the Republican lost state House District 29 by fewer votes than the Libertarian earned.
- In 2010, Tom Tancredo ran for governor with the American Constitution Party (ACP). He took second, outperforming the weak Republican candidate, Dan Maes, and officially changing the ACP’s status from minor to major party for a few years. In this case, John Hickenlooper won with over half the vote. But for a while I wondered if Maes and Tancredo would split more votes than Hickenlooper earned.
- During the 2016 presidential campaign, many people worried that Green candidate Jill Stein would throw the race to Donald Trump or that Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson would throw the race to Hillary Clinton. Undoubtedly Stein cost Clinton some votes, but she probably didn’t change the outcome.
In most cases, minor party candidates do not affect the outcome. Largely this is because many people vote out of fear rather than vote their conscience. For example, someone might prefer the Green candidate to the Democratic candidate and yet vote for the Democrat so as not to spoil the election.
Usually even when a minor party candidate spoils a race, the change makes little difference, either because the major party candidates aren’t all that different or because the winner is not able to accomplish much.
But sometimes a “spoiled” race can make a big difference. For example, if Jared Polis wins the governor’s race and Democrats win the state Senate (and keep the House), that could result in far-reaching policy changes. And Libertarian candidates, operating within existing rules, will have played a big role in the shift by costing Republicans key races.
The current system of voting could lead to a nightmare scenario. Imagine a horrible candidate — say, one with the worst traits of Donald Trump combined with the worst traits of Bernie Sanders — beloved by a third of the population and despised by everyone else. In a three-way race, in which the other two candidates are beloved by two-thirds of the population, if the two popular candidates evenly split the vote, the horrible candidate could win with just over a third of the vote.
So what does approval voting do? Quite simply, it allows voters to vote for (approve) more than one candidate in a race. For example, under approval voting, I could vote for both Huber and Williams.
Approval voting would eliminate the spoiler effect, prevent nightmare scenarios, let people vote their conscience, ensure the election of candidates with broader support, and give smaller parties a chance to compete on a level playing field.
I am voting for Blake Huber of the Approval Voting Party to help draw attention to his cause. In this race the spoiler effect probably won’t matter. In other races, it matters a lot. So let’s join Huber to do something about it.
Ari Armstrong (@ariarmstrong) publishes the Colorado Freedom Report and is the author of Reclaiming Liberalism.