Polarization, glass-ceilings, lack of representation, voting for the lesser of two evils, spoilers, mud-slinging, inflated influence of money in politics, entrenched fat cats in smoke filled back rooms, two party domination.
You name it, it's either caused by or compounded by "Choose-One-Only" Voting.
"Choose One Only" voting: Voters vote for one candidate only and the candidate with the most votes wins. Despite being the most common ballot type in the world, Choose One voting elections are universally recognized by voting experts as being far and away the least representative. Because results get worse the more candidates are in the race, a primary and a general election are usually employed to narrow the field.
Technically known as Plurality or First-Past-The-Post, voting reform advocates often use the more self-explanatory term "Choose One" voting for the sake of clarity. These are interchangeable umbrella terms for any election using a choose-one ballot and may describe any of a number of variations. The At-Large version which elects several representatives from a single multi-member district was historically used to prevent People of Color from being elected and was federally banned in the U.S. in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, though it's still widely used for local and citywide elections around the U.S. and around the world. Portland, Oregon's city council is a modern example.
Vote-Splitting: Vote-splitting is a phenomenon where like-minded voters are split between two or more similar candidates, often causing both to lose to a less preferred candidate. Vote-splitting is common in Choose-One voting, and may occur in Ranked Choice voting elections with multiple viable candidates. Voting methods like STAR Voting and Approval Voting, which allow voters to assign an independent measure of support to each candidate, are immune to vote-splitting.
Spoiler Effect: The "Spoiler Effect" is a phenomenon caused by vote-splitting where a losing candidate, or "Spoiler," draws votes away from a candidate who would have otherwise won. The election is "Spoiled," if it elects a candidate who was less preferred, or even one who was opposed by a majority of voters. The Spoiler Effect is common in Choose One voting and can still occur in Ranked Choice voting elections. Famous examples of spoilers include Green Party candidate Ralph Nader and Independent Ross Perot. The most well known example of a spoiled election in a Ranked Choice election was the 2009 mayoral race in Burlington, Vermont.
The Root of the Problem: Vote-Splitting and the Spoiler Effect
Most elections around the world use single-winner "Choose One" Plurality Voting. Vote for one candidate only, and the candidate with the most votes wins. This works well in elections with only two candidates, but if there are three or more, voters with more candidates on their side are at a severe, predictable, mathematical disadvantage. Vote-splitting can allow a candidate who was opposed by the majority to win. In order to prevent this clearly undemocratic outcome, voters must be strategic and vote as a single cohesive block. The incentive is to vote for the "lesser evil" candidate on your side who seems the most electable and not vote for potential "spoilers," even when that means not voting for your favorite.
The fear of vote-splitting, spoilers, and the spoiler effect has a powerful impact on voter behavior, and gives a huge advantage to those deemed most electable, which in practice are usually those who raised the most money, incumbents, and those with the best name recognition. This powerful incentive to vote for someone electable gives enormous influence to the media, who largely control who gets press time and who is taken seriously. As of 2020 90% of the media was owned by only six corporations. The increasing influence of social media is another factor that comes into play here, with the inherent dangers of internet echo-chambers again underscoring the point that voters should not be beholden to who they are told can win and should be able to vote based on the issues they care about.
The spoiler effect makes elections gameable, and those who play the game best are more likely to win. The strategy is multifold: The press determines which candidates are electable in the first place. Donors often encourage and fund spoiler candidates on the opposing side hoping to throw the election in favor of their candidate. Politicos use the spoiler effect as justification for why newer candidates should not run at all or should wait their turn. Aspiring candidates face strong pressures to not run against politicians who they may need to work with in the future.
While voters may feel like they have a choice, the reality is that elections under Choose One Voting are in practice often an exercise in manufactured consent rather than true representation or political accountability.
Compounding this issue, most political analysis focuses on blaming politicians for the inevitable corruption that results, and blaming candidates for being spoilers, when the reality is that these problems are built directly into the fabric of the system itself. The data is clear. According to the most comprehensive study on the subject to date, from Princeton University, “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”
"The fact is that... the [Choose One] voting method we use in most of the English-speaking world, is absolutely horrible, and there is reason to believe that reforming it would substantially (though not of course completely) alleviate much political dysfunction and suffering."
Equity, Primaries, and the Influence of Money in Politics.
In order to achieve gender parity or racial equity in politics, more diverse candidates will need a level playing field where they can run and win. Incumbents and established politicians in general are often wealthy, white, and/or male. The spoiler effect is a glass-ceiling for other groups.
Studies on the demographics of elected officials in the United States show that white men held 62% of elected offices in 2019, despite comprising only 30 percent of the population. The reality is that voting methods which give a strong advantage to those who are deemed most electable will continue to uphold serious disparities in representation, regardless of public opinion.
Changing this will require replacing many of these incumbents with new candidates who have never held public office. Unfortunately, the harsh reality is that Choose One voting and the Spoiler Effect uphold the status-quo. New candidates face very strong incentives not to run in the first place, and (regardless of their qualifications) face numerous barriers to getting elected.
Challenging an incumbent from your party is a big taboo, and breaking that taboo, especially if a new candidate does end up being a spoiler, often means that candidate will be blacklisted in the future by funders and by other politicos. Those looking to run for office are often told to wait their turn and run for a rare winnable seat with no incumbent, but those seats are often even more competitive, and the establishment nod and endorsements needed to run for these go to those with all the right connections.
"I don’t care who does the electing as long as I get to do the nominating"
Voter turnout is another key factor in whether or not elections yield representative outcomes. Though the 2020 US presidential election had a record turnout, only 43.5% of eligible voters cast a ballot. While every election is different, the trends are consistent. Potential voters who aren’t inspired by anybody on the ballot are much less likely to vote.
Primaries and special elections notoriously have even lower turn-out than general elections... and this is exploitable to game the system. Under the current system, campaigns need a certain "win number" of votes to get elected. The higher the win number, by percentage of the population, the more representative an election will be, but the lower the win number, the easier it is to win. Maneuvering to lower the win number for a given election is thus a major incentive for campaigns. Low-turnout primaries mean win numbers much lower than general elections. This reality incentivizes vote disenfranchisement.
Historically all sorts of measures have been taken to suppress voter turnout, both blatantly and more insidiously. Choose One voting encourages campaigns to focus on getting out the vote for their voters specifically, while keeping turnout for the opposition low.
In most non-partisan elections if a candidate gets a majority in the primary there's no general election at all and the race is over, or the candidate is the only name on the ballot in November. In partisan races, unless it's a swing state or district, the winner of the primary is almost guaranteed to win the general, so the race is effectively over after the primary, even if only a fraction of the voters were paying attention.
Compounding this is the well known fact that primary voter demographics are consistently older, more resistant to change, and less diverse than voters in general elections. Across the board, decisions made in primaries are less representative than decisions made in general elections.
Choose One Partisan Elections and the Two-Party System
In Choose One partisan general elections, only the two major party candidates are viable. Minor parties are almost certainly spoilers, as history has proven time and time again. The spoiler effect creates and enforces the two-party system.
In the U.S. as of October 2020, 36% of Americans identified as independent, more than either major party, but in practice, swing voters, independents, and third party voters have no substantive voice in elections where only two viable candidates make it to the general election. Discounting the voices of well over a ⅓ of the electorate means that partisan primaries often fail to advance any candidates with broad enough support to represent the majority of voters in the general election.
The two-party system may not seem like a big problem for those who honestly do prefer the frontrunner on their side, but the reality is that any election at any time can be thrown by a small number of 3rd party voters. Voters who don't like either major party nominee have to fall in line and vote for the lesser-of-two-evils or they risk wasting their vote and being scapegoated
When an election is spoiled and a candidate is elected without a majority mandate, that means that even a majority of voters in opposition will be unable to vote that candidate out if needed. For this reason vote-splitting stands directly in the way of accountability and our ability to remove corrupt politicians when needed.
Top-Two Elections Exclude Voters
Vote splitting can only happen with more than two candidates in the race, and elections with only two candidates ensure a majority preferred winner, so it stands to reason that many elections would only allow two candidates in the general. Enter the non-partisan "Jungle Primary" and Top-Two general election system. In these elections, the two candidates with the most votes in the primary election appear on the ballot in the general election, regardless of political party.
In the general election, this variety of Choose One voting appears to solve a number of problems, including the spoiler effect, and non-partisan general elections it also ensure that states or districts dominated by one party will usually have competitive general elections, but the reality is that these problems aren't actually solved, they are just moved to the primary, and in the primary some of these problems are magnified.
Primaries and Polarizing Outcomes
The more candidates in a race, the more often vote-splitting will cause a spoiled election with Choose One voting. Non-partisan primaries are more likely to have more candidates, so this makes spoilers even more common. These types of elections often attract a number of candidates with platforms geared at the majority of voters as well as a couple of candidates who are more fringe. The majority preferred candidates on each side can thus split the vote, electing the polarizing fringe candidates who stand out from the rest. In general elections the spoiler effect entrenches two party domination and gives an advantage to "electable establishment centrist" types, in primaries the impact of the spoiler effect is to advantage the most polarizing fringe candidates.
Another concern is if partisan primaries even consistently elect the candidates who best represent them. Often fields of candidates in a partisan primary will include multiple candidates running on a platform which represents the issues most important to the bulk of voters in that party, and there will be one who is running on a platform that is not representative but which stands apart and is clearly distinct from the others. Unfortunately, as we know, vote splitting strongly favors the side with less candidates. For this reason, a party primary can and often does fail to advance the candidate who best represents the party, particularly in races without clear frontrunners.
The 2016 Republican Presidential Primary and the 2020 Democratic Presidential Primary were both modern examples of elections with very large fields of candidates, and no clear frontrunners. In the 2016 Republican Primary the bulk of candidates were from the political establishment, and outsider candidate Donald Trump was able to win with well under a majority of votes. In the 2020 Democratic Primary the bulk of candidates ran with platforms which were quite progressive and focused on major systemic change. Biden stood apart from the pack as the establishment pick who promised that "Nothing would fundamentally change" if he were elected. In both cases the candidate who won was the candidate who established themselves as different from the rest, rather than the candidate who represented the political center of their party base.
Hate and Fear-Mongering in Modern Elections
In Choose One voting and the Two Party system the winning strategy for candidates will always be to set yourself apart from the other side. Us-against-them is King. Of course, not all candidates will choose to succumb to the pressures to demonize the other, but this system upholds fear as one of the strongest tools which can be leveraged against the modern voter. It is a race to the bottom in which the political forces at play ensure that truly representative candidates don't usually make it to the general election. In 2016 candidates Hillary Clinton managed to rally her base around the promise of the first female president, and Donald Trump rallied his with an anti-establishment message, but the reality was that both had historically record-low favorability ratings. Not surprisingly, the media on both sides mostly hammered home the battle cry to vote against the other side, rather than focusing the campaigns on voting for something they were truly excited by.
The voting method is the problem, voting reform is the solution
The Equal Vote Coalition, a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on voting reform, has identified five overarching pillars which need to be maximized for better voting, healthy political discourse, and fair representation: Equality, Honesty, Accuracy, Simplicity, and Expressiveness.
Equal: Does not put some types of voters at an unfair advantage. Voting methods which ensure an equally weighted vote eliminate vote splitting and the spoiler effect by definition. Voting methods which eliminate incentives to strategically vote for those who are deemed more electable are required to eliminate other implicit biases.
Honest: Safe to vote your conscience, strategic voting is not incentivized. When voters face strong incentives to vote strategically there is no way to know if ballots cast even represent what the voters truly wanted.
Accurate: Winners are representative and accurately reflect the will of the people. Election accuracy is assessed using a variety of metrics including Voter Satisfaction Efficiency.
Simple: easy to understand, easy to tabulate, easy to implement, easy to audit.
Expressive: voters are able to express their full nuanced opinion.
STAR Voting is the reform which best delivers on these goals. Learn more about STAR Voting here.