Democrat Yadira Caraveo won the District 8 seat for U.S. House by 1,632 votes, beating out Republican Barbara Kirkmeyer, as of results posted at the end of November by the Secretary of State. Meanwhile, the Libertarian in the race, Richard Ward, earned 9,280 votes. This led many Republicans to ask an obvious question: If Ward had not been in the race, would Kirkmeyer have won?
Jon Caldara believes, “The Libertarian cost Kirkmeyer her seat. Absolutely. Chalk one up for the spoilers.” Mandy Connell suggested that perhaps someone “propped up” Ward, and she said a friend blamed the “Libertarian candidate . . . in the 8th Congressional race for helping get a screaming lefty elected in that race.” Complete Colorado reporter Sherrie Peif, quoting people such as Republican strategist Dick Wadhams, puts Ward in the “spoilers” category.
It’s hard to know what would have happened in the race had Ward not been on the ballot. Maybe enough of those votes would have gone to Kirkmeyer that she would have won. Maybe not. I think it’s more likely than not that the Libertarian did shift the outcome. Whether that counts as “spoiling” the race is a matter of perspective.
But it’s not totally obvious that the Libertarian drew more votes from the Republican. Republicans like to imagine that a Libertarian is a Republican-lite and that votes for Libertarians “really” belong to Republicans. I think that stance is hubris and a denial of the large differences between social conservatives and libertarians.
Ward thinks he earned votes from people who otherwise would not have voted at all, as the Daily Beast reports. Ward hardly is a buttoned-up Republican wannabe; rather, he is the sound guy for a heavy metal band who embraced as his campaign theme song “Shut the F__ Up.” He calls himself a “libertarian socialist” (whatever that means) and advocates legal psychedelic mushrooms. And he opposed the Trump-friendly alt-right takeover of much of the Libertarian Party. Does this really sound like the sort of guy who attracted votes mostly from people who otherwise would have voted for the Republican?
Still, my guess is that most people who voted for Ward had never heard of him before. So, absent exit-polling data, it’s hard to know why people voted for him and how they otherwise might have cast their vote.
Whether or not Ward being on the ballot changed the outcome of the race, the fact that we’re even discussing this indicates a basic problem with our election rules. And Ward is not the only potential “spoiler” this cycle, as Caldara, Peif, and I have discussed.
The most obvious–and easiest–reform to eliminate the “spoiler” effect is to institute approval voting, as activist and Approval Voting Party candidate for U.S. Senate Frank Atwood has long advocated. The basic idea is that you get to vote for (“approve”) as many candidates as you want, rather than for just one. So someone could have voted for Ward only, Ward and the Democrat, or Ward and the Republican. Then, if Caraveo had still won, there would be no question about whether Ward changed the outcome.
Of course, Democrats may not like the idea of approval voting precisely because, these days, Libertarians and American Constitution candidates tend to hurt Republicans more than Green Party candidates hurt Democrats.
Democrats should support approval voting anyway. First, there’s no guarantee moving into the future that “spoilers” will continue to disproportionately cost Republicans. Second, approval voting obviously is more democratic, in that it allows voters to better-express their preferences, and Democrats are supposed to be about supporting democracy.
Ranked-choice voting is another option, but a worse one than approval voting, as well as more complicated to implement. So it is unfortunate that ranked-choice voting is more popular among reformers. Several Colorado cities, including Fort Collins, soon will use it. As writers for The Hill point out, ranked-choice voting can eliminate a candidate who is actually the most generally popular.
Let’s use Alaska as an example. As the Alaska Division of Elections notes, if no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote in the first round, “the candidate with the fewest votes gets eliminated. If you voted for that candidate, your vote goes to your next choice and you still have a say in who wins.”
Here’s the problem. Let’s say 40% of voters absolutely love Candidate A but 60% absolutely hate her. Let’s say the same is true of Candidate B but with different sets of voters. Then there’s Candidate C, beloved by only 20% of voters but okay in the judgment of the other 80%, the ones who love either A or B. Under approval voting, Candidate C easily wins, because many people who love Candidates A or B also vote for Candidate C. But under ranked-choice voting, Candidate C is eliminated in the first round and A or B wins. That’s a terrible outcome. Either way, we end up electing someone hated by most voters.
If it were up to me, I’d implement even more-radical reforms. I’d get the government entirely out of the business of tracking people by party, giving preferential treatment to “official” parties, and funding party primaries. Instead, I’d implement fair ballot access rules, the same for all comers. But regardless of what other reforms we may embrace, we should adopt approval voting or some reasonable alternative.
Neither voters nor elected officials should have to worry about whether a candidate won because of the quirks of our election rules. Give us approval voting.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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