Rob Richie: “How to Stop Consultants from Weaponizing Voter Choice” [Corrected]

The following is a guest post from Rob Richie of FairVote:

A Super PAC called the True Kentucky Patriots has a message for Bluegrass State voters that’s been all over local TV stations: The “true conservative” in the U.S. Senate race is Libertarian candidate Brad Barron, not Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Liberty SC in South Carolina takes a similar approach as it targets Sen. Lindsey Graham from the right. Constitution Party hopeful Bill Bledsoe, the $1 million ad buy proclaims, is the “only true conservative on the ballot.” 

Liberty SC and the True Kentucky Patriots have something else in common. Both are Super PACs financed by Democrats hoping to siphon votes away from a Republican incumbent and direct them toward a potential third-party “spoiler.” The Kentucky group has the same treasurer as the pro-Amy McGrath Ditch Fund, as in “Ditch Mitch.” And while Liberty SC gives every impression that it’s conservative, its finances are run through a bank well-known for its connections to Democrats. Bledsoe, who endorsed Graham weeks ago after dropping out, has complained bitterly about the ads

Both Republicans and Democrats have engaged in such expensive mischief for years, but it’s getting worse. In Minnesota this year, Republicans were caught recruiting a candidate to split the Democratic vote in a tight congressional race. In Montana, Republican operatives qualified the Green Party — especially odd since the Greens had not actually endorsed any candidates. Democrats then successfully sued to knock them off the ballot. In Kansas, meanwhile, Democrats sought to game the plurality system in a crowded GOP U.S. Senate primary, creating the odd spectacle of a liberal Super PAC backing Kris Kobach.

In the presidential race, Republican lawyers and consultants have boosted Kanye West’s quixotic campaign in multiple states, hopeful that the hip-hop star might keep young black voters from backing Biden in a state where fewer than 25,000 votes made the difference in 2016. Democrats helped kick Greens off the presidential ballot in the battlegrounds of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania –  just as they temporarily did in state legislative races in Texas. Before the Texas Supreme Court made a last-minute reversal and put Greens back on the ballot, control of the Texas house and its redistricting plans in 2021 might have hinged on Libertarians staying on the ballot and Greens not. [This sentence has been corrected.]

Weaponizing third parties and hoodwinking those inclined to back them may be ugly, but consultants are simply giving into a temptation enabled by policymakers who maintain a vulnerability permitting partisan hacks. Consider that in the 2016 presidential race — when Robert Mueller’s legal team found Russian agents sought to persuade idealistic young people to vote for Gary Johnson and Jill Stein — more than six million votes were cast for third parties. As Al Gore might remind us, Ralph Nader’s 97,421 votes in Florida in 2000 was far more than those lost due to long lines or hanging chads.

The good news is there’s at least one easy, proven and increasingly popular fix. Ranked choice voting would put an end to plurality winners and corrosive tactics seeking to exploit them. If voters had the option to rank candidates in order, and a conservative in Kentucky could vote for Barron first and McConnell second, this sordid strategy would lose its power.

Maine already has ranked choice voting in place for its federal races, as do 20 cities and towns, to go with its use in five Democratic primary states this spring. A ballot question in Alaska would establish ranked choice voting for elections for president, congressional and state offices Massachusetts and five cities are also voting to adopt RCV.

In Maine, FairVote’s SurveyUSA poll last week found that ranked choice voting will likely avoid non-majority outcomes in both the U.S. Senate race and presidential race for the elector in the second congressional district. With a Green and Libertarian on the presidential ballot, RCV did not affect the presidential margin. But the strong first choice vote for Green Party independent Lisa Savage in the Senate race suggests RCV will improve Democrat Sara Gideon’s position in the instant runoff. Notably, rather than the usual acrimonious relationship between Democrats and Greens, Savage has endorsed Gideon as a second choice.

We’re polarized enough. Let’s remove the incentive for political parties and consultants to engage in negativity and chicanery. As long as candidates can win elections due to the majority splitting the vote, their consultants are incentivized to play dirty, pump money into surprising campaigns, and peel votes away from the opposition party. None of the ugliness of weaponizing third parties would happen with ranked choice voting: It removes both the incentive to furtively qualify a third party, as well as the spectacle of a major party suing to limit voter choices.

Let Kanye run. Let the Libertarians run. Let everyone run with the will and true support to get on the ballot. Just give voters the tools to sort it all out. They’re more than capable of determining the “true conservative,” and even putting them in order.

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