I have written this USA Today oped: (with a condescending headline I did not choose)
Many Millennials and other voters who are cool toward Hillary Clinton, and warming up to Libertarian Party candidate Johnson or Green Party candidate Stein, may not remember how third-party alternatives like Ralph Nader helped elect George W. Bush overAl Gore in 2000. Nader drew tens of thousands more votes in Florida than the difference between Bush and Gore, and could well have cost Gore the election.
Despite Nader saying there was “not a dime’s worth of difference” between Republican Bush and Democrat Gore, without Nader on the Florida ballot, we might not have had an Iraq War and all of its aftermath.
And thanks to our convoluted presidential election system, we might see history repeat itself….
How do third-party candidates end up as “spoilers”? First, ballot access is relatively easy in the United States. In most states, it is not that hard for any candidate with even a small amount of support to get on the ballot. Second, once these candidates get on the ballot, they have virtually no chance of gaining even a single Electoral College vote. With just a couple of exceptions, whoever gets the most votes in any state wins all of the state’s electoral votes. So people can easily vote for candidates who have no realistic chance of winning the race, but do have a chance to distort the outcome.
Our winner-take-all Electoral College system tends to produce only two viable parties. Everyone knows this, making third-party candidates suffer in terms of name recognition, money, and organizational skills. The final hurdle for these outsiders is a relatively high polling threshold (15% this year in national polls) to get into the presidential debates. That creates a very difficult chicken-and-egg problem for these candidates, who need public recognition to get into the debates, but who need the debates for the public recognition.
Candidates like Nader have loudly protested that they are not “spoilers,” correctly pointing out that they have the right to run for office like everyone else, that the Constitution does not guarantee the Republican and Democratic parties the right to run unopposed in elections, and that they add valuable voices and perspectives to the debate.
There is much to be said for this position in the abstract. The best way to deal with it going forward is to adopt something like “instant runoff voting” in our presidential races. Under that system, the votes of people who picked candidates at the bottom of the results would be re-allocated to their second choice, until one candidate had a majority of votes. I strongly support such a change in future elections….
The only certainty, however, is that under the rules in effect for 2016, third-party voters who stick with their first choice risk ending up with their last choice.