Magazine article USA TODAY

Time to Stop the Plurality

Magazine article USA TODAY

Time to Stop the Plurality

Article excerpt

FORMER NEW YORK Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire 41 times over, decided that the system was stacked against him, and so did not run for president as an independent this year. The fact that running outside of the two major parties would have made him an overwhelming underdog should worry all of us. Bloomberg's politics are not the issue here. The concern is that, unless you are a Democrat or Republican, you cannot compete. Within an electoral system marred over campaign finance, apparently even an absurd amount of wealth does not help those running outside the two parties.

Bloomberg maintains he did not run for fear of splitting the vote. "I love our country too much to play a role in electing a candidate who would weaken our unity and darken our future--and so I will not enter the race for president of the United States." You can make your own guesses as to which candidate he thinks would cause that darkened future.

Plurality voting--what we use now--is a voting method where you are given a slate of candidates on a ballot, and get to choose one. The candidate with the most votes wins.

(Before we move on, let us disabuse a common misconception: the term "one person, one vote" is from some Supreme Court cases involving unequal district sizes--so that the weight of the vote for people in a less-populated district was much greater than the weight of the vote for others in a more populated district. This has nothing to do with the voting method itself or forcing people to use the choose-one-candidate system.)

Vote splitting is a huge issue with plurality voting, largely because of this voting method's inexpressiveness. If there are a number of similar candidates that you like, our plurality voting method does not give you the option to support more than one of them. Choose more than one and your ballot is invalidated. Consequently, support is divided among similar candidates, and those similar candidates' reflected support is much less than their actual support.

Plurality voting is extremely sensitive to vote splitting. For a concrete example, just flash back to 2000 when the vote for president split in Florida. There, Ralph Nader's Green Party presence on the ballot caused the vote to divide between Democratic candidate Al Gore and Nader. This vote splitting allowed Republican George W. Bush to creep in and win the state's electoral votes, which was enough for Bush to take the presidency.

This spoiler effect occurred despite Nader getting only a small fraction of votes in the state. That this happens even when a candidate gets few votes demonstrates just how vulnerable plurality voting is to the vote-splitting effect. Bloomberg, who presumably hoped to get more votes than Nader, would have had an even larger vote-splitting effect in the 2016 election. To all of those Democrats who were upset at Nader for running, you are eyeing the wrong enemy. Your enemy is not sympathetic competition on the left, it is a terrible voting method that punishes us all whenever competition is introduced.

Vote splitting does not always occur from the edges of the political spectrum. It also comes from the middle. In fact, with plurality voting, the candidate in the middle--the moderate--sometimes stands the least chance to win when surrounded by candidates on either ideological end. The reason for this is the "center-squeeze effect." Moderates have their votes split off by candidates on either side, suffering alongside any other candidates in the middle. It then is the polarizing candidates who capture the electorate's fringe edges. These polarizing candidates' advantage is that their vote only is divided on one side rather than both sides.

This center-squeeze effect particularly is common in primaries where there are many candidates clustered together. Can you think of any extreme candidates in this year's primary who may have benefited from this center-squeeze effect? …

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