When most people think about the structural barriers inherent in our system, they think of gerrymandering, money in politics, single-member districts, and voting rights.
All of these are existing problems that create an unfair system that puts people of color at a permanent disadvantage. But there’s another element that receives too little attention, vote-splitting.
In truth, under the current voting system, more candidates and more voting won’t solve the problem with American democracy on their own. In fact, because of how we vote, more candidates can be part of the problem.
Imagine a scenario where the majority of voters in a community share similar opinions, but in an election, this community is forced to make a single choice among 6 similar candidates. At the ballot box, the majority of voters split their support amongst these similar options. As a result, a 7th candidate, who enjoys solid support among a small portion of the community, wins by default.
In this scenario, the consensus preference of the community has been ignored because of how we vote. This is vote-splitting, and it happens all over America.
Vote-splitting by the Numbers
While often ignored, vote-splitting is an issue that plagues American elections, particularly among urban centers with majority-minority populations. In 2019, The Center for Election Science conducted some simple research looking at Mayoral elections in America’s 154 most populous cities. Here is what we found:
- On average, 6.8 candidates run in each election
- 55.6% of the votes go AGAINST the winning candidates
- The majority of “winners” who fail to get 50% of the vote avoid a runoff
Each of these problems is worse in majority-minority cities.
- The average number of candidates: 7.3
- 56.9% of the votes go AGAINST the winning candidates
As the map shows, elections with severe vote-splits happen all over the country, in cities and states that span the political spectrum.
Vote-splitting: Why Does it Matter?
Elected Officials Without the Support of the Electorate
To pass an agenda and positively impact their community, elected officials need the support of their voters. When extreme vote-splits happen, the winners are at a disadvantage, and the will of the majority may not be represented.
The 2019 Mayoral election in Dallas provides an example. In a field of 9 candidates, two advanced to the runoff with the combined support of just 38.8% of the votes cast. In smaller jurisdictions, like Aurora, CO which don’t use a runoff, the results can be more troubling. In Aurora, the majority-minority split their vote among two candidates of color and elected a mayor with 35.8% of the vote.
Candidates elected via vote-splits often struggle to build support for their agenda and push policies that are out of step with the consensus opinion of the electorate.
The policy outcomes, which perpetuate inequality across our society, exemplify how our elections are falling short.
Loss of Faith in our System
At The Center for Election Science, we want to see a vibrant American democracy that works for everyone and yields equitable outcomes. Currently, America suffers from systemic inequality, and our electoral system has failed to address it. As a result, Americans are increasingly pessimistic about our democracy.
According to a survey from FiveThirtyEight, more than one out of four voters who failed to vote in the 2020 election said they did so because nothing would change if they did. This loss of faith in the system is particularly severe in communities of color.
In 2019, The Black Census Project released a comprehensive report on Black political attitudes, which found that while Black Americans are increasingly engaged in politics, the majority don’t believe that politicians care or care very little about them (52 percent).
Due to this justifiable lack of faith in our system, Black voters are often forced to tactically vote based on electability more than any other demographic. Political pundits call it pragmatism, but in truth, it’s a decision forced upon them by our voting method.
Why Approval Voting?
Empowered Voters: Free to Vote Their Preference
Time and time again, people of color are expected to be the tactical voters who must weigh electability when they cast a ballot. Our in-depth studies and real-world examples show that when you give voters more choice, it impacts how they vote.
We want a thriving democracy where voters are free to express their true preferences when they vote. Approval voting allows the voter to vote “yes” or “no” on every candidate on the ballot. They can weigh every candidate by their merit, free from the fear of “throwing their vote away” and free from arbitrary ranking.
Elected Officials With Strong Support
After every election, political analysts weigh whether the winning candidate’s victory margin constitutes a “mandate to govern.” With more candidates and the resulting vote-splitting, plurality voting makes that mandate harder to see. Underserved communities are plagued by entrenched inequality.
Under our current system, it’s common for elected officials to win an election with less than 35% of the vote, many times based on the support from a single community within the electorate. These conditions incentivize elected officials to play to political divisions within a community and thwart their ability to address long-term political challenges.
By contrast, approval voting elections yield elected officials with broad approval within their community. Approval voting elections in Fargo and St. Louis have elected candidates who enjoyed broad support from their community. Backed by a strong mandate, these candidates can confidently push an agenda to better their community.
At their core, our elections must be a source of unification for our communities. Under plurality voting, candidates are motivated by a win number—the bare minimum of votes needed to win. In crowded elections where many candidates run, that win number can represent a relatively small selection of the electorate. During every primary or general election, political pundits refer to a candidate appealing to their “core supporters”—often representing a small sliver of the voters. Since voters are forced to make a single choice, the true measure of their political preference is never recorded, and candidates ignore voters who don’t fit their model.
By contrast, approval voting celebrates the diversity of our political thought. Voters cast a ballot that represents the full spectrum of their opinion, without the need for arbitrary rankings. In order to win, candidates must appeal to a broad coalition within the electorate. These coalitions can yield important partnerships that translate into positive outcomes.
In St. Louis, the results of the approval voting primary demonstrate the power of this reform, as the leading candidates built coalitions across the traditional divides of the city.