Commentary: One of the more hilarious vote-splitting elections I have witnessed happened in 2014.
Deming City Councilman David Sanchez was running for re-election against two challengers, both of whom were named Khanbabian. They were brothers. You would think these guys would hold a family primary and unite behind one candidate, but no, they both challenged the councilman. A slim majority of voters in their district voted against Sanchez, but because the brothers split the vote, the councilman was re-elected anyway.
Proponents of ranked choice voting (RCV) – a system where you select a first choice followed by a second, third, and downward – say RCV would have delivered a more representative outcome.
RCV is also known as instant runoff voting. If a candidate does not win a majority, last-place finishers are eliminated and the votes recounted. If your first choice does not win, your ballot will count for your second choice, and so on.
Among the promised benefits of RCV is an end to vote-splitting and the “spoiler effect” that traps voters into voting strategically for “the lesser of two evils” instead of voting for their actual preference.
Santa Fe is about to become the 12th American city to institute RCV – after being ordered to do so in court. Voters approved it in 2008 and have waited nearly a decade. Now, Santa Fe councilors have agreed to move ahead with the new balloting for March elections – while simultaneously appealing it to the state Supreme Court.
To the extent that instant runoff voting admits a broader range of candidates and encourages voter participation by providing a more satisfying experience, it is certainly one piece of a more democratic system. It is no panacea, however, in a plutocratic system where money rules.
Proponents of RCV promise it will discourage negative campaigning, since candidates would need to court second-round votes. This does not dissuade political action committees from continuing their corrosive attacks and misinformation, however. The problematic role of soft and dark money would remain, along with a campaign finance apparatus that favors large donors’ preferences.
As political scientist Martin Gilens reported in 2016 following an analysis of opinion polling and subsequent legislation, “Affluent Americans exert substantial influence over the policies adopted by the federal government, and less well-off Americans exert virtually none. Even when Democrats control Congress and the White House, the less well-off are no more influential.” Instead, corporate lobbyists and wealthy donors maintain plutocratic control of policy.
RCV also cannot compensate for an electorate that exhibits little interest in policy, ethics, or any consistent ideology. Time and again, we show ourselves easily manipulated by images and words that stoke grievances against other social groups and fears about personal security and finances.
With that ring through our nose, a different voting procedure won’t stop us from electing lawmakers who scorn the working class, as Sen. Chuck Grassley exhibited when he defended a tax cut for wealthy families because it “recognizes the people that are investing, as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.”
Grassley seems to be unaware how many people spend “every darn penny” on rent, food, and heat - or how many aren’t even doing that well. Voters keep re-electing him all the same.
New ballot procedures alone will not defeat plutocracy. For that, voter behavior must evolve.