Plurality Voting and How To Improve U.S. Elections

Plurality Voting and How To Improve U.S. Elections

(The original version of this article was written by Aaron Hamlin, co-founder and executive director of The Center for Election Science; adapted for publication here with permission)

What is “plurality voting”? Simply put, plurality voting is the voting method where voters choose only one candidate for a given political office, with the winner being the candidate with the most (or a “plurality”) of votes. Despite the fact that plurality voting has been the default method for American elections since the foundation of our Republic, many political scientists and other academics are increasingly convinced that plurality voting is actually a terrible voting method for modern representative democratic governments. Here are five good reasons why, according to The Center for Election Science, as well as recommendations for how we can improve our electoral process and enliven voter participation at the polls by embracing alternative voting systems.

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1. It’s Inexpressive

Plurality voting is among the least expressive voting methods there is available. A plurality ballot puts a slate of candidates in front of you and forces you to choose only one and no more. Consider how strange this is. You may very well have opinions about some or all of the candidates on a ballot, and yet you only get a say about one. Other voting methods allow you to express yourself in different kinds of ways — for example, approval voting allows voters to choose any number of candidates; ranked-choice voting lets you rank candidates by preference; and score or range voting asks voters to give each candidate a score, with the winner being determined by the candidate with the highest total or average score.

In contrast, plurality voting allows for none of this additional nuance. If voters are dissatisfied with the candidates who are running for office, their only option for expressing their political opinion in a plurality voting system is to turn in a blank ballot or not vote at all. While these are valid forms of voter protest in our current electoral system, they limit the range of political expression available to the voting public.

2: The Spoiler Effect

Anyone who remembers the 2000 United States presidential election is aware of the spoiler effect. In that election, Independent candidate Ralph Nader did not win but effectively divided the vote in support of Democratic candidate Al Gore. Without Nader’s presence, Gore would have won; but with Nader present, Bush won. It may seem strange that a candidate with limited political support such as Nader could enter a nationwide election and have a disproportionate impact on the outcome, but this is a very real possibility in plurality voting.

Plurality voting is extremely sensitive to this spoiler effect. The “spoiler” candidate only needs to take away a little support from a similar candidate to sway the election. This happens because plurality only lets you choose one candidate. Because you can only pick one, voters are forced to divide their support among similar candidates.

The spoiler effect influences policy as well. It explains in part why ballot-access laws are so restrictive in the United States. Third parties and independent candidates are often forced to quickly get many thousands — sometimes tens or hundreds of thousands — of signatures to get on the ballot. Even if they are successful in getting on the ballot, major parties then challenge those signatures to try to kick them off. In Pennsylvania, presidential candidate Ralph Nader was forced to pay court costs just for defending his own signatures. This restrictiveness in the electoral process plays out on the local level in State, county and municipal elections as well.

Why do major parties do this? Without a third or fourth candidate on the ballot, there’s no worry of a spoiler. Under a plurality voting system major parties have preferred will act to stifle competition, leading to the stifling of democratic speech, the over-simplification of complex social issues, and the polarization of political discourse.

3: Favorite Betrayal

While it may seem counter-intuitive, plurality voting can actually lead to you voting against your favorite candidate. It does this by presenting you with a dilemma: (a) support the candidate you really want, but risk having another, less-desirable candidate winning; or (b) make a compromise by choosing among the frontrunners, abandoning your favorite in the process. Frustratingly, plurality voting seems to punish voters (or threaten to punish them) simply for supporting their favorite candidate.

Not being able to vote for your favorite candidate creates further additional issues. For example, there’s less motivation to improve ballot access or get signatures for your candidate. After all, why work for better options if you believe that voting for your preferred candidate will result in the opposite political outcome that you intended?

4: Partisan Winners

When multiple candidates enter a plurality voting election — or advance through multi-candidate primaries — we tend to see more partisan winners. This is due to a phenomenon called the center-squeeze effect that works against moderate candidates who appeal to the center. The effect looks something like this:

The candidates in the middle have their vote divided and “squeezed” from either side while candidates on the ends pick up the support from either tail. If you had to pick a best candidate for this electorate, wouldn’t you pick the candidate right in the middle since they appeal to the broadest range of voters?

With all the talk about partisanship these days you would think that there would be more attention being paid to this center-squeeze issue, but there isn’t. Instead we wring our hands and call for “bipartisan agreement” when in fact given the current polarization of political discourse expecting bipartisan cooperation is like expecting a basketball player to pass the ball to the opposing team. In this way plurality voting can contribute to the impression that the political process is a zero-sum game.

5: Barrier to Entry

Barriers to entry do not necessarily affect an election’s winner, but they do threaten political discourse — a crucial piece of a functional modern liberal democracy. Plurality voting creates a barrier to entry for new candidates by giving them artificially low support as a consequence of voters fearing to vote for their favorites. This means that new candidates — including third parties and independent candidates — don’t just lose. They lose big.

Our plurality voting approach is also implicit within our polling process. Pollsters call people at dinner time and ask questions such as: “If the election were held today, which candidate would you vote for?” These questions favor incumbents and candidates who are already familiar to those polled, and the answers weigh heavily in determining who gets invited to political debates. If candidates get too little support, they won’t get to appear in the debates, and those candidates’ ideas will not get heard as a result.

The media also considers plurality voting results when it comes to third parties and independent candidates. Plurality voting’s under-representation of third parties is part of the media’s decision not to cover those candidates. The media’s logic to exclude candidates is rather circular in nature: i.e., “If their ideas were any good, they would have done better in the polls. They didn’t do well in the polls, so their ideas must not have been any good.” Rarely however does the media consider that plurality voting may in fact be skewing the polls.

Plurality voting is so ingrained in us that the voting public regards new ideas in the political arena with suspicion. It also tells us that even if a third party or independent candidate gets on the ballot, we should dismiss them as distractions or regard them as potential spoilers.

The net effect of plurality voting in the United States is that we are left with a two-party system, with each of these parties representing only a narrow range of ideas from the broad spectrum of American public opinion. By limiting public discourse in this manner, many voters end up feeling disenfranchised from the electoral process and despondent that any real change is possible. Exploring alternative systems of voting, such as approval voting, may be a solution to our political stalemate and provide a way forward in making real progress on the important issues facing our nation.