Kanye West
Credit: NRK P3/Flickr

Kanye West has millions of fans around the world. But before this month, no one knew just how beloved he was by Wisconsin Republicans.

When the hip-hop superstar—who has been gathering signatures to get on the 2020 presidential ballot as an independent in several states—submitted his nominating papers in Wisconsin, they were turned in by the former general counsel for the state Republican party. Turns out that the attorney, Lane Ruhland, has another important client: She’s representing President Trump’s re-election campaign in a lawsuit against a TV station in northern Wisconsin.

It’s not pretty. The Washington Post reported that Republican operatives are pursuing the same tactic in at least four other states.

Indeed, both parties—Democrats and Republicans, even Russian operatives in 2016—have a sordid, manipulative history of weaponizing third party candidates and meddling in the other side’s crowded primaries. Many partisans have embraced, sometimes gleefully, an “anything goes” philosophy that’s perfectly willing to confuse voters, alter the choices before them, and even steal races they might not have otherwise won.

Our electoral system not only makes these tactics possible, it encourages them. As long as candidates can win elections with a plurality of votes—less than 50 percent—they’re incentivized to play dirty, pump money into surprising campaigns, and peel votes away from the opposition party. As Ohio State election law professor Edward Foley argues in his acclaimed new book “Presidential Elections and Majority Rule,” plurality voting departs from the founders’ vision and should be replaced.

The good news: There’s an easy fix. This is yet another reason to adopt ranked choice voting and put an end to plurality winners as well as these corrosive tactics. In a crowded field, RCV gives voters the power to sort every candidate in order of preference. If no one wins 50 percent during the initial vote, an instant runoff kicks in. In a three-way field, the candidate in third place would be eliminated, and backers of that candidate would have their second choice count.

In Wisconsin, which Trump carried with 47.2 percent in 2016, some Republicans hope West might peel young black voters away from Biden. If voters could use RCV, it would help provide the most accurate and complete portrait of the peoples’ will. West voters, if they desired, could cast a second-place vote for Biden or for Trump. If no one reached 50 percent in initial voting, those backup choices would come into play. A Kanye West candidacy in fact might generate new voters rather than “waste” votes.

This is how democracy should work. Winning candidates ought to have support from at least 50 percent of voters, many candidates should be allowed to run, and voters should be able to support third party candidates without creating a “spoiler” situation that allows someone to sneak into office despite a majority of voters backing someone else. 

It shouldn’t be too much to expect political parties to fix the system rather than actively subvert it. But in Kansas this summer, for yet another example, Democrats worked to exploit our plurality system and a crowded field in the GOP’s U.S. Senate primary. It cost them millions and created bizarre political bedfellows: A liberal Super PAC backing Kris Kobach for U.S. Senate. 

That’s right. Liberal donors filled the Kansas airwaves with negative ads that misleadingly attacked Rep. Roger Marshall, the congressman endorsed by the GOP establishment, as a “Never Trump,” “Romney Republican.” Many Democrats thought the controversial Kobach would be easier to beat in November than the more moderate Marshall, especially after a Democrat defeated him there for governor in 2018.

The hope? In a race with four top candidates—therefore winnable with as little as 26 percent of the vote—peel as many votes away from Marshall and toward the others, making it possible for Kobach to win with support from his committed base. It had worked before. Former Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill openly bragged about running the same play in 2012, helping controversial conservative candidates with ads and polling. (Former Congressman Todd Akin won the GOP primary by surprise with just 36 percent of the vote, then fell by a landslide to McCaskill in the fall exactly as she imagined.)

Back in 2012, Montana Democrats played a similar game, this time in the general election, when a dark money group bankrolled a late radio and TV ad campaign on behalf of the Libertarian candidate, describing him as either the “true conservative” or the “real conservative” in the race. It worked: Jon Tester won the seat with 48.7 percent. The Republican candidate finished 19,000 votes off the pace. The Libertarian captured more than 31,200 votes. Tester still holds the seat. You could make the case, however, that voters preferred a more conservative candidate—and that a majority of voters did not get their will due to the quirks of the system and the way it was played by Democrats.

This year, Montana Republicans tried to lift the Green Party onto the ballot—even though Greens noted that they had not actually endorsed any candidates. State Republicans looked to qualify the party anyway, likely looking to drain liberal votes from Democrats in a year with a competitive race for governor and U.S. Senate. Democrats sued to knock them off the ballot, and this week the state supreme court and a U.S. district court agreed. None of this happens with RCV: It removes the incentive to furtively qualify a third party, as well as the spectacle of a major party suing to limit voter choices.

The spoiler dynamic even became a part of the Mueller investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman observed that a “big aspect of the Russian meddling was encouraging voting for a third-party candidate,” with one Russian ad urging progressives to “choose peace” and “Trust me, it’s not a wasted vote.” (No trial is expected for a simple reason; all of the indicted agents live in Russia.)

This is an ugly and losing game. Our political parties should not be adding to the polarization of our politics. They should not be trying to rig elections so that they can “win” with a plurality of the vote. And our election system should give hyper-partisans even more reasons to be hyper-partisans. There’s a good reason why so many democracies around the world—and why so many cities and states here at home—are beginning to make this switch. Instead of a system with Super PACs and gamesmanship run amok, ranked choice voting returns elections to where they belong. With the people. 

Rob Richie and David Daley

Follow Rob Richie and on Twitter @davedaley3. Rob Richie is the president and CEO of FairVote. David Daley is a senior fellow at FairVote and the author of “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy."