Elections in this world's oldest democracy have quite a few vulnerabilities that periodically drift into and out of the news, usually without any hint of resolution. Around the time of the 2000 and 2004 elections, Democrats were particularly concerned about the issue of election fraud, but this is a topic that seems little discussed today. More recently, Republicans agitated about the issue of voter fraud but they cannot seem to point out more than one or two instances of it. There seems more smoke than fire and the smoke seems bogus, generated as a smokescreen for voter suppression. In any event we will probably not hear much about it after the elections in November.
Not so much in the news, but always on the minds of those affected is the fact that minority parties feel they are treated unfairly. They have a point; they get little attention from the media and the major parties generally do what they can to make them irrelevant. But by the same token, candidates within the major parties who somehow are out of the mainstream - Ron Paul or Dennis Kusinich for example - do not get any better treatment. Life is not always fair and only rarely is politics, but still we should look for ways to increase fairness.
There seems ample evidence of many issues regarding our elections, but just one of them will be the primary focus here. This issue is with the basic structure of our elections, specifically that there is an opportunity and maybe even a tendency for minority candidates to become spoilers. When three or more candidates compete in an election, the winner might have received only a minority of the votes, with three candidates this could be as little as 34%; more candidates will bring this percentage down even more. But even more perversely, the winner of an election may even be the very candidate that the vast majority of voters most opposed and perhaps even despise.
This spoiler effect happens for a couple reasons and what seems the most obvious of those reasons is that there are more than two candidates in the race. Often, efforts to manage the spoiler effect have focused on restricting elections to only two candidates and of course this is the approach that the two major parties prefer. They offer the spoiler effect as the reason we have to suppress third parties, but somehow this approach does seem quite distasteful, for why should the voters not have a larger menu of candidates to choose from?
IRV and F&A Voting Voting
Perhaps to avoid the spoiler effect we really need to rethink the way we vote and how we hold elections and count votes.
A great many other democracies have avoided the spoiler problem by adopting the parliamentary system. This system gives the voters representation proportional to the size of the vote for each party; however for the U.S. To adopt this system it would have to radically change its Constitution.
Instant runoff voting (IRV, sometimes called ranked voting) is another approach and it is one that is more compatible with the existing structure of our own government. Australia uses it as do a few local elections in the U.S. With ranked voting voters are asked to rank all of the candidates in order of preference; with IRV, this detailed information about voter preferences is used to mimic what would have happened had there been a series of runoff elections with voters returning again and again to the polls. Though they are the most widely known and discussed, these are not the only two available alternatives.
Why do we sometimes elect people to office that so many voters dislike? Surely one reason is that in our elections must be that we never even ask the voters about their dislikes, we only ask them which candidate they like the most. A seldom mentioned but clearly important cause of the spoiler effect is that we give voters no way to explicitly express a heartfelt opposition to a candidate. Is it then so surprising that candidates are sometimes elected even though they may be actively disliked by a wide majority of voters -- and that is the spoiler effect at its very worst.
Even minutes before voting, voters will often say that they have not yet made up their minds how to vote. This might be merely to avoid disclosing a decision already made and it might be because the voter is uninformed or uninterested. But it is also possible in a multiple candidate race for a thoroughly informed voter to have very strong feelings about the race but still not know how to vote. The voter may very strongly oppose one candidate but not perceive much difference between the others; unfortunately there is no way to express this with a vote. This is exactly the predicament that leads to the spoiler effect. So why do we make it so hard for voters in this situation? Why does our electoral system so strongly favor a positive vote over a negative one, especially given that this contributes so critically to a problem that is seriously corrosive to our democracy?
In an alternative system, the "one For AND one Against" (F&A) system, in a given race where there are more than two candidates, a voter will be asked to cast two votes, one being a vote for a chosen candidate and the other being a vote against some other candidate (of course practicality dictates that voters also have the option of abstaining from one or even both of these votes). Effectively, the voter has the opportunity to express which one of the candidates the voter most likes and which one the voter least likes -- a nice balance. In a three-candidate race, the voter will have completely ranked the three candidates and to this limited extent, the F&A system is exactly like ranked voting.
Besides offering the voters more pleasing balance of options, another advantage of F&A over IRV is its apparent simplicity - it is an easier system to explain and the vote is easier to count, easily done by hand and in public view. With IRV, there is a series of re-counts of ballots as candidates, one by one, are eliminated. But with F&A there is a single count of the votes and a single pass through the ballots to separately tally the for and against votes. Each candidate's net vote is the difference between the votes for and the votes against; the tally could quite possibly be negative.
From the voter's point of view as well, F&A is simpler than IRV. A reason people may have resisted adopting IRV is the thought that in a many-candidate race they might be faced with not really knowing or caring about several of the candidates but nevertheless having to somehow rank them on their ballots relative to the other candidates. With F&A the voter is faced only with deciding on first and last places, not all of the potentially many troublesome positions between.
The winner chosen by using F&A voting might well be different from the winner using IRF, but arguably this is because the outcome is more fair with F&A voting - but be warned that to feel this way about the outcome you must be prepared to reconsider some long-held assumptions about what the proper outcome of an election should be. This is probably best explained by illustration.
The Bush v. Gore election in 2000 can be simplified to serve as a good example. While there actually were more candidates in that race, for simplicity we pretend there were only three, Bush, Gore and Nader. The official certified votes in that race showed Gore with 2,912,790 votes and Bush with just 537 more. Ralph Nader received another 97,488 votes. As with our familiar voting system, IRV gives thoroughly preferential treatment to positive sentiments and since Nader received so few votes he would be quickly removed from consideration, leaving the 537 votes for Bush to be decisive in his favor.