There’s a Simple Solution to the So-called “Spoiler” Problem, But Don’t Expect the Democrats to Solve It

Photograph Source: Gage Skidmore – CC BY-SA 3.0

As soon as Cornel West announced that he is entering the 2024 presidential race as a Green Party candidate, it was only a matter of time before the inevitable calls of “spoiler” began coming from all the usual suspects. Establishment Democrats, naturally, have been at the forefront of this predictable scaremongering. Former Obama administration advisor David Axelrod, for instance, stated: “I don’t know why alarm bells aren’t going off now, and they should be at a steady drumbeat from now until the election.” Pennsylvania Democratic congressman Brendan Boyle, meanwhile, said: “Any Democrat who runs an independent or third-party presidential campaign is dramatically helping Republican odds’ of victory.”

But progressive Democrats have also been voicing concerns about the so-called “spoiler effect.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said to The Hill newspaper: “I think just right now, given the Electoral College, it’s very difficult to square the very real threat of a Republican presidency … [with] the risk of giving up the very small margin of electoral votes needed to ensure that President Biden wins.” Likewise, fellow Congressional Progressive Caucus member Jim McGovern stated: “The stakes are too high this year, especially if Trump is the nominee. … I think everybody, including the most progressive elements of our country, need to protect our democracy by stopping Donald Trump and supporting Joe Biden.”

The Hill harked back to the 2016 presidential election, stating that West’s entrance into the race has “promoted bad recollections for Democrats of 2016, when third-party nominee Jill Stein captured enough votes that election analysts said helped contribute to Trump’s edge in certain states.” But the Democrats’ paranoia about third-party candidates stretches back further. For those old enough to remember, there was ample whining from the campaign of then-Democratic candidate Al Gore about how Ralph Nader, also running on the Green ticket, supposedly handed the election to Republican rival George W. Bush. Nader’s almost 100,000 votes in Florida, in particular, are held up by Democrats as an ominous warning about the purported dangers of splitting the vote of the Democratic base.

This whole narrative, of course, is based on several assumptions that make superficial sense but, upon closer inspection, are at best dubious. First of all, it assumes that those who vote for the Green candidate would have voted for the Democratic candidate had the former not been on the ballot. This ignores the possibility (in my view, strong probability) that, had there been no Green or other genuinely left option, then many of those voters would have spoiled their ballot or simply stayed home. Though granted I am a sample of exactly one, I have never voted for a Democratic Party candidate in my life and never will. Like many socialists, I oppose the “lesser evilism” of reluctant Democrat supporters, maintaining instead that the lesser evil is still evil.

There is also the issue of the voter distortion caused by the electoral college. Many states across the country are (in my view, wrongly) assumed to be uncompetitive. Obviously, there is no way of knowing how many more people would have come out in the supposedly less competitive states had the election been decided on a popular vote basis. But the distortions arguably work the other way too. In a popular vote scenario then obviously there would be no such thing as swing states. It could be that in that situation many more people would vote for third party candidates in what are now such states.

But all of this is not the point. Because there is a simple solution to resolve this issue and eliminate the spoiler effect entirely, which the Democrats have seemingly never mentioned, let alone tried to enact. The solution is to abolish the electoral college and move toward a ranked-choice popular vote. This would mean that people who want to put Green as their first choice could then (if, unlike me, they would want to) put the Democrat as their second choice. Under ranked-choice voting, there are several rounds of vote counting. If no candidate gets over 50% of the popular vote, then candidates lower down the vote count are eliminated and their votes get added to the tally of their second choice.

2020 Green Party presidential candidate Howie Hawkins has been a long-time advocate of this move. I interviewed him in the run-up to the 2020 vote for the UK based online publication The Canary. Speaking of the corporate-owned media’s coverage of his campaign, he said: “One way we’ll be covered is they’ll say, ‘we’re on enough ballots that we could be the margin of difference in some states.’ And then they’ll ask us if we’re spoilers. And my answer is, ‘no, the Democrats are spoilers.’ Because we’ve given them a proven nonpartisan solution to the problem of spoiling; and that is get rid of the electoral college and go to a ranked-choice national popular vote for president.”

On his campaign website, he points out: “Two of the last three presidents lost the popular vote. The Democrats, who won the popular vote but lost the presidency in those elections, but have never campaigned to abolish the Electoral College and replace it with a ranked-choice popular vote for president. That is exactly why the Green Party must run candidates—to put proposals like this into public debate that the two capitalist parties ignore.”

Rather than cynically fearmonger about a second Trump administration in order to boost their own (pathetically dismal) candidate’s chances, the Democrats would be better off actually doing something to solve the spoiler problem – especially given that they are the ones who shout the loudest about it. Of course, we shouldn’t hold our breath. The Democrats do not, nor have ever, cared about genuine democratic reform or, indeed, anything other than their own partisan self-interest and the maintenance of their party’s stream of corporate and billionaire campaign contributions.

For those who get duped into the Democrats’ spoiler effect scaremongering and lesser evilsm, perhaps it’s time they reconsider whether they should allow themselves to be cynically manipulated into giving support to a party that deserves none.