Commentary & Analysis

Worrying About the Right Things

By William Poundstone

In 1992 the well-respected California judge Abraham Aponte Khan lost to a virtually unknown challenger who had been rated “unqualified” by the Los Angeles County Bar Association. The challenger’s name was Patrick Murphy. He won, it seems, because Murphy sounded less “foreign” than Khan did. The all-American Judge Murphy later resigned over allegations of money laundering and absenteeism.

In 2006 the “exceptionally well qualified” (L.A. Bar Assn.) Judge Dzintra Janavs lost to Lynn Diane Olson, who ran a Hermosa Beach, Calif., bagel store.

“You know the most frightening thing about judicial elections?” asked Parke Skelton, a consultant who worked for former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. “Eighty percent of the people actually pick someone.”

Skelton meant that judicial elections get almost no media attention and are usually nonpartisan. Therefore most voters are left choosing a name almost at random. That turns the ballot into a very effective psychological experiment in hidden bias. Unfortunately it doesn’t do a good job of electing the most qualified judges.

I often think of that when I read of electoral problems, real or imagined. It seems we have a way of worrying about the wrong things. Right now we’re hearing a lot about voter ID fraud (from conservatives) and gerrymandering of congressional districts (from liberals). These issues get attention because there is partisan advantage at stake. Meanwhile we hear little of problems with no partisan spin (like the problem of electing judges with foreign-sounding names). And we hear little of the biggest problem of all with American elections.

That’s the plurality vote. As a sound bite, “one person, one vote,” sounds as fair as fair can be. Yet it’s not always fair when there are more than two candidates on the ballot.

The main problem is vote splitting. Two or more similar candidates may split a shared constituency’s vote, allowing a less popular candidate to win. In the 2012 race for the Republican nomination for President, there were half a dozen Tea Party contenders and two moderates. That reflected the party’s rightward tilt. Thus Tea Party candidates had to fight among themselves for a thin slice of the far-right pie, while the moderates split a smaller pie in two. That helped moderate Mitt Romney win—even though the Tea Party candidates might have better represented the mood of party delegates.

Vote splitting can decide general elections too. In 2000 Ralph Nader’s far-left third-party candidacy siphoned enough votes from Democrat Al Gore in Florida to let George W. Bush win the state’s electoral votes—and thus the election.

That was no anomaly. In my book Gaming the Vote (2008), I analyzed the Presidential elections since 1828 (when the modern system of popular voting for each state’s electoral votes began). To update that analysis, at least five of our Presidential elections (out of 47) were determined by a third-party spoiler that caused the race to go to the second-most popular candidate. I’d call that an 11 percent rate of catastrophic failure. We wouldn’t accept that for a car or airliner. Why should we accept it for electing our leaders?

There are better ways to vote. The simplest is approval voting, which you can see explained in detail on this site. Whenever there are more than two candidates, each voter is allowed to cast (or withhold) a single vote for each of the candidates running. The candidate with the most votes wins. A 2012 Tea Partier could have voted for all the Tea Party candidates (or as many as that voter judged worthy). A 2000 liberal could have voted for Nader and Gore, voicing approval for Nader while not helping to elect Bush. Approval voting better allows the voter to express nuances of opinion. That’s a plus for left, right, and center.

Just don’t expect our parties and politicians to take the initiative. Because a suitable voting method must, by definition, be scrupulously fair, there is no partisan advantage to be had. Replacing the plurality vote won’t happen until an educated electorate demands it. That’s why the educational mission of the Center for Election Science is so important. The stakes could not be higher.


William Poundstone is the author of 13 books including Gaming the Vote. He has written for the New York Times, Harper’s, Harvard Business Review, and Village Voice, and is a frequent guest on TV and radio. He is also a member of The Center for Election Science advisory board.