This fall, Washington’s Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and Democratic Party Chair Tina Podolowski released an unusual campaign video about the state’s Secretary of State contest. The three-minute video ostensibly supported fellow Democrat Steve Hobbs, but he’s not the focus. The Democrats “warned” against write-in candidate Brad Klippert — whose name is mentioned a remarkable 12 times (once every 14 seconds) — and identified him as “the only Republican in this race.” The candidate actually on the November ballot alongside Hobbs, independent Julie Anderson, was not mentioned once.
It was a not-so-subtle gambit: Draw attention to a “spoiler” candidate in Klippert, take Republican votes away from Anderson, and win. Hobbs ended up beating Anderson by 3.9 percentage points. Write-ins, which mostly went to Klippert, accounted for 4.4 percent of vote. In other words, write-ins siphoned off enough votes to change the outcome of the race.
Washington State wasn’t alone. In Kansas, a Democratic-aligned group flooded the airwaves with ads that cast right-wing independent Dennis Pyle as the “real conservative” in the governor’s race. Pyle picked up 20,078 votes, just a few hundred votes fewer than the Democrat’s winning margin over the Republican. Good strategy!
Democrats tried elevating Libertarian congressional candidates in Michigan and Kansas, too. Republicans took their crack too: A likely Republican donor backed a Green Party congressional candidate in Oregon.
Strategically, these gambits make sense if winning is all that matters.
But at this moment of apparent peril for our democracy, we should strive for honesty and better elections — something or someone to vote for, not just political consultants’ trickery.
The good news is, there’s a simple, proven fix to this problem: ranked choice voting. This allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference — first, second, third and so on. If voters’ first-choice candidate can’t win, their vote simply counts for their next choice.
Just like that, the “spoiler” problem vanishes. If you want to vote for Libertarians without “spoiling” the chances of Republicans, simply rank Libertarians first and Republicans second. Same on the other side — rank Greens first, and Democrats second.
Campaign strategy changes, too. Instead of pitting one against another, candidates are rewarded for connecting to more voters and winning their second-choice support
— whether that’s Republicans picking up Libertarians’ second choices based on taxes, or Democrats competing for those votes on social issues.
Ranked choice voting enables more and better choices for voters. Minor-party candidates — or less well-known candidates in primaries or nonpartisan races — are able to run without fear of being blamed for hurting similar candidates.
After all, if they can’t win, voters who supported them will simply have their votes count for a backup choice.
The “spoiler problem” — and the parties’ work to exploit it — is not a new phenomenon. Look to North Carolina, where, earlier this year, the state Democratic Party sued (unsuccessfully) to keep a Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate off the ballot. In Florida, a Republican politico in 2020 took chicanery to a criminal extreme, paying a person named Alex Rodriguez to enter the race against Democratic state Sen. Jose Rodriguez, with the goal of confusing voters and siphoning off votes. It worked, mostly. Jose Rodriguez lost. Alex Rodriguez accepted prosecutors’ plea deal and is on probation; the plan’s alleged mastermind awaits trial.
Of course, this is all compounded by the fact that so few elections are competitive. Only about 40 U.S. House seats were true toss-ups this November. Presidential elections today come down to a few swing states where minor party and independent candidates such as Ralph Nader or Gary Johnson can determine who wins the White House. When so much relies on so few races, it’s no surprise that party operatives take a “win at any cost” approach — even when that cost may be unsavory tactics antithetical to our principles.
Addressing this lack of competition will require comprehensive reform, as will lowering the temperature of our polarized politics. And yet, ranked choice voting is an improvement being adopted across the nation — it’s now in 63 cities, counties and states where 500-plus elections show that voters understand it, like it, and take advantage of the freedom to rank their choices. This past Election Day, eight places, including Nevada and cities from Fort Collins, Colo., to Seattle, voted to use it in their elections.
Ranked choice voting can help fix our broken elections. It’s a path away from false flags and dirty tricks, and toward better choices and better campaigns. It’s a path we should take.
Rob Richie is president and CEO of FairVote, a nonpartisan organization seeking better elections for all.