It is relatively early in the 2024 election campaign season, but Connecticut voters are already hearing about the “spoiler” problem.
The direct result of our current single choice system of voting which allows a candidate to win without getting a majority vote, the “spoiler” problem forces voters into a binary, “lesser of two evils” dilemma.
At the national level, the “spoiler” problem is already at play in the 2024 presidential election. A group called “No Labels” that is co-chaired by former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman is laying the groundwork to field an alternative candidate for president because, they say, polls show there is path for victory for an alternative candidate if 2024 is a re-match between President Biden and former President Trump.
The fatal flaw with No Labels’ poll-based strategy is that it completely ignores the “spoiler” problem. A poll asks what candidate a voter prefers. However, in today’s single choice voting system, the question a voter asks in that final moment in the voting booth is not “What candidate do I prefer?” Instead, today’s single choice system of voting forces the voter to ask the very different question “What is the risk that a vote for my preferred, alternative candidate will be wasted and actually help elect a candidate I truly don’t like?”
Nor will the spoiler problem disappear if polls show the alternative candidate is preferred by most voters. Every voter will know that other voters will vote on a basis other than preference and that the pre-election polls are asking the wrong question. And no supporter of the alternative candidate will have any basis for confidence that other professed supporters will actually vote for the candidate they said they preferred. Every voter will face, alone, the wasted vote and “lesser of two evils” dilemma that is the essence of the spoiler problem.
Because of the spoiler problem even an alternative candidate who leads in the polls will literally hemorrhage support on Election Day, and every voter will fear it and vote accordingly. Both of the major party candidates and their supporters will do everything they can to take advantage of voters’ fear and uncertainty, by making partisan use of the spoiler argument.
The 2023 municipal election in one Connecticut town presents an example of the spoiler argument. The incumbent is a popular, two-term First Selectperson of a small Connecticut town who has been elected twice as an unaffiliated candidate and is running for re-election. The individual was nominated by the Democratic Party in 2019 and by both the Democrat and Republican parties in 2021.
After the candidate announced for a third term last month, a Democrat wrote a letter to the editor of the local daily newspaper calling the incumbent a “spoiler.” The letter went on to say that a vote for the candidate would be “a vote for the Republicans” — even though the incumbent has twice been the Democratic nominee. In short, the popular incumbent is being called a spoiler by a member of the party that nominated the candidate for both winning campaigns.
None of these spoiler claims would be possible if Connecticut voters joined the ranks of the 14 million voters in 29 “red” and “blue” states that use Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) in one or more of their elections. RCV is a powerful election reform that eliminates the spoiler problem as well as assuring majority rule.
RCV allows voters to rank more than one candidate on the ballot in order of preference (first choice, second choice, third choice) and eliminates the need to conduct separate runoff elections to produce a majority winner. If a candidate receives more than half of the first choices, that candidate wins just like in any other election.
If there is no majority winner after counting first choices, the race is decided by “instant runoff.” The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and voters who picked that losing candidate have their votes counted for what was their next choice in the runoff. The process of eliminating losing candidates continues until two candidates remain, and the majority candidate wins.
With RCV, no vote is ever “wasted,” and no candidate is ever a “spoiler.” In addition, where our current single-choice system of voting rewards the politics of polarization, RCV reduces polarization and negative campaigning because RCV candidates need to try to appeal broadly to a majority of voters to win and need to seek the second and third choice rankings of voters who might initially prefer a rival.
With the support of Gov. Ned Lamont, a bi-partisan bill on RCV was introduced during the recent session of the Connecticut General Assembly but failed to advance from its legislative committee of cognizance.
Voters and policy makers should demand passage of legislation to implement RCV, at least as a pilot option in presidential primaries and in municipal elections, so we can eliminate the “spoiler” and other problems created by our current single choice system of voting and bring to our electoral process the legitimacy that comes with the perception and reality of majority rule.
Dan Rosenthal is the First Selectman of Newtown and a founding member of the Advisors Council of Connecticut Voters First.