So a guy walks into a restaurant, and asks what kind of pies they have. The waitress says they have apple and blueberry. He orders a slice of apple pie.
The waitress goes into the kitchen, then comes back out and and says, "Sir, the cook says we have cherry pie, too."
"Well, in that case," says the diner, "I’ll take the blueberry."
That nerdy joke, attributed to Columbia philosophy professor Sidney Morgenbesser, was designed to illustrate an absurdity that we don’t want in a voting system. The introduction of an irrelevant alternative (in the joke, the cherry pie) shouldn’t affect the outcome of our choice (blueberry vs. apple).
With controversyheatingup in the vote recount Washington state governor’s race—just a handful of votes separates the two leading candidates, and a recount is underway—it’s useful to remember that our winner-takes-all voting system is every bit as mixed-up as that man in the restaurant.
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The libertarian candidate for governor, Ruth Bennett, got more than 2 percent of the statewide vote. It’s quite likely (though not a sure thing, given her accepting stance on social issues such as gay rights) that if Ms. Bennett hadn’t run, slightly more of her supporters would have voted for Rossi, the Republican, than for Gregoire, the Democrat. And with a margin this close, "slightly more" could have made the difference between a near-deadlocked vote that’s too close to call, and a clear, though slim, win for Rossi.
In short, Rossi likely would have beaten Gregoire in a head-to-head ballot, by a margin that would likely have made a recount unnecessary. So if Gregoire manages to pull ahead, Bennett will have been the "irrelevant alternative"—the cherry pie that tipped the collective "will of the people" from Rossi (the apple pie) to Gregoire (the blueberry).
Regardless about how you feel about this particular outcome, I think that this sort of thing has to be seen as a persistent flaw in American democracy. With winner-takes-all voting, third party candidates become spoilers, all too often undermining democratic choice by giving political office to candidates favored by a minority of voters. And major parties know this. So as a rule they try to squelch or co-opt third parties—which, in the long run, has the effect of limiting the number of voices and the range of ideas that are part of the political discussion, narrowing and polarizing the public debate in the process.
One of the few advantages of electronic voting machines is that they make it easier to adopt a transferrable vote system, in which voters rank candidates in order of preference. Preference-order voting systems reduce the likelihood of "spoiler" candidates. BC’s Citizen’s Assembly on Voting Reform has proposed making that change already. Perhaps it’s time for that idea to spread.