May 13, 2022

By Megan Caska
Interim Director of Political Programs, RepresentUs

Picture this: Three candidates are running for office. Candidates A and B mostly agree on the issues, but candidate C’s views don’t overlap at all. 

When the results come in, 48% of the vote goes to Candidate C, 45% to Candidate A, and 7% to Candidate B. Candidate C wins because it’s a “first past the post” election, meaning whoever gets the most votes wins even if it’s not a majority. Given their policy agreement, it’s reasonable to assume that had candidate B not run, A would have won with a majority. 

This dynamic is known as the “spoiler effect” – one of the biggest flaws of our current voting system. Even though the majority of the electorate rejected the ideology of Candidate C, they ended up winning anyway. 

But fear not – ranked choice voting is one solution to the spoiler effect problem.

Historical examples

The spoiler effect has reared its ugly head time and again over the years. Perhaps the most well-known example is the 2000 Presidential Election. In Florida and New Hampshire, Green Party nominee Ralph Nader received more votes than the margin of Republican nominee George Bush’s victory over Democratic nominee Al Gore. Gore’s supporters argue that had Nader not run, we would have ended up with President Gore instead of President Bush. 

In a much older example, Progressive Party nominee Theodore Roosevelt arguably caused Republican incumbent William Taft to lose to Democrat Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 Presidential Election.

Now, a third party’s presence on the ballot rarely alters the result of the election on the federal level, according to a Washington Post analysis. But when the margins are so close, there are a handful of races that could be spoiled. As a result, voters are stuck feeling like they need to vote strategically. Often, this means voting for a candidate who isn’t their ideal choice but has a better chance of winning than a third party or independent candidate. 

Our election system – because it often does not require a candidate to win a majority of the votes – enables this. 

How do we stop the spoiler effect?

The best way to solve the spoiler effect is to change how we run our elections. Instead of voting for the “lesser of two evils,” voters should have real choices. They should be empowered to vote for their favorite candidate without risking a situation where a candidate they oppose wins. 

One of the best ways to achieve this is to implement ranked choice voting (RCV). In RCV elections, voters rank candidates on the ballot in order of preference. If no candidate receives more than 50% of first-place votes, the lowest-performing candidate is removed. The voters who chose that candidate as their top choice then have their votes redistributed to their second choice candidate. This process continues until someone has a majority of the votes – ensuring that the winner is supported by the majority of their constituents. 

RCV tackles the spoiler effect because it allows voters to use their first choice vote to support their favorite candidate, and then rank the rest of the candidates. In the scenario from above, candidate B would have been eliminated, and – assuming B’s voters ranked Candidate A second, Candidate A would win. RCV ensures that the most broadly acceptable candidate wins. 

RepresentUs has helped win ranked choice voting in states and cities nationwide, and we aren’t stopping anytime soon. Want to help stop the spoiler effect? Sign up below to join our movement!

Contributors: Nolan Bush, RepresentUs Writer; Caroline Joseph, RepresentUs Research Analyst

RepresentUs is America’s leading anti-corruption organization working city-by-city, state-by-state to fix our broken political system.