RICHARD FOBES: Ban Single-mark Ballots from Congressional Elections

RICHARD FOBES wrote this by 2012-05-06; the original publication has gone down (

The 1% is able to outvote the 99% by taking advantage of the weaknesses of single-mark ballots, especially by taking advantage of vote splitting.

We are very familiar with the vote splitting that happened in the 2000 Presidential election when the splitting of votes between Al Gore and Ralph Nader caused George W. Bush to win the election even though a clear majority of voters (52%) marked their ballot for someone other than the winner. We are less familiar with vote splitting in Congressional elections because those elections do not involve nationally recognized names.

As a recent clear example of vote splitting in a Congressional election, the 2010 special election in the first Congressional district of Hawaii was won by Republican Charles Djou even though a clear majority of voters (60%) split their votes between Democratic candidate Colleen Hanabusa and Democratic candidate Ed Case.

Vote splitting often occurs in Congressional primary elections, but it goes unnoticed because the winner of a Republican primary is always a Republican and the winner of a Democratic primary is always a Democrat. This unfairness is further hidden because we use single-mark ballots that do not collect enough information to know which candidate is really the most popular. Yet there is evidence of this unfairness when the winner of a primary election fails to get half the votes, which means that more than half the voters (a majority) voted for someone other than the winner.

Official election results (in both primary and general elections) produce almost no evidence of vote splitting because most voters vote “strategically,” which means we do not vote for our favorite candidate if our favorite cannot win. Instead we vote for the candidate who has the best chance of defeating the candidate who we fear the most.

Yet the unfairness of Congressional elections is obvious. It shows up in the low approval ratings of Congress. And Congress demonstrates very little willingness to pass the laws that we, the majority of voters, want (some of which are mentioned below).

Proposed federal law

New federal law:  Single-mark ballots, on which a voter can mark only a single candidate when there can be more than two candidates in the race, shall be banned from being used in all Congressional elections, including both primary and general elections of both U.S. Representatives and U.S. Senators.

Better ballot types:  Each individual state shall be allowed to choose which kinds of ballots and which kinds of counting methods are approved or disapproved as replacements for single-mark ballots and plurality counting, except that the ballots must collect additional preference information from voters and those ballots must be counted in ways that mathematically and reliably improve the fairness of the results compared to using single-mark ballots and plurality counting. If a ballot type can be counted in more than one way, the official election results must include published data that enables any news organization to count the ballot preferences using other counting methods for comparison purposes.

Deadlines:  This ban will apply to: at least one Congressional district in each state for the primaryelections in the year 2016, at least one-third of all (non-Senate) Congressional districts in each state for the primary elections in the year 2018, and all Congressional and U.S. Senate primary and generalelections by the year 2020.


Here is a way to explain vote splitting to family and friends by counting on fingers. If there are nine voters, and four of these voters vote for the status-quo incumbent (who opposes reform), and the other five voters vote for a reform candidate, the reform candidate wins with more than half the votes. But if a second reform candidate is added to the single-mark ballot, and if the reform votes are split into three votes for one reform candidate and two votes for the other, the incumbent wins, but with less than half the votes.

While voters split their votes, the biggest campaign contributors work together to concentrate — instead of split — their financial support. In the primary elections of both the Republican and Democratic parties they choose to support just one money-backed candidate in each Congressional district. Evidence of this cross-party financial influence appears in the campaign-finance data at, which clearly shows that the industries that contribute the largest amounts of campaign money give their money to both the Republican party and the Democratic party.

The biggest campaign contributors also use their control of both “conservative” and “liberal” mainstream media to distract voters with entertaining news such as “blame games” and religious issues. This distraction helps to hide their real agenda, which is to protect their unfair, yet legal, financial advantages (such as undeserved tax breaks, legal monopolies, and laws that favor large corporations over small businesses).

Part of the reason a candidate needs so much money to win an election is that most voters do not really like the money-influenced candidates in either political party, and advertising and other marketing techniques are needed to “sell” the candidate to the voters. If vote-splitting tactics were not available to defeat popular reform candidates, reform candidates could get elected with much less funding.

For additional information about the unfairness of single-mark ballots, and specific recommendations for better ballot types — namely ranking ballots (also called “1-2-3 ballots”), approval ballots, and score ballots — and better counting methods, you can refer to the “Declaration of Election-Method Reform Advocates” (at, which has been signed by election-method experts from around the world.

(Those who study voting methods will notice that this proposed law does not implement any form of “proportional representation” as a remedy for defeating district-boundary manipulations and facilitating the election of third-party candidates. That’s because the Supreme Court would be likely to overturn such a law. Also this law does not address the unfair voting method used within Congress, but eventually that voting method also needs to be reformed.)

Winning an election with less than half the votes might seem like a small unfairness, but the effect is huge because of a layering effect. Although each Congressman typically got a ballot mark from about one out of two voters in the general election, he or she got a ballot mark from only about one out of four voters (based on cross-party counting) if the Congressman competed against a strong candidate in the primary election. Another layer occurs because only slightly more than half the members of Congress need to vote in favor of a new law to get it passed, so just those Congressmen got ballot marks from only about one out of eight U.S. voters, which is about 12% of U.S. voters. Yet even more layers are involved because most Congressmen first serve as state-level officials, and the state-level election process similarly filters out the problem-solving leaders that most voters want. Adding in two more layers to account for mainstream-media influence and low voter turnout easily accounts for how each law passed in Congress represents the desires of only 1% of the U.S. population.

When single-mark ballots have been replaced with better ballots and better counting methods, we the 99% can outvote the 1%. Specifically:

  • we can vote out of office the incumbents we don’t like,
  • we can vote into office the problem-solving leaders we want,
  • we can elect candidates who are not excessively influenced by the biggest campaign contributors,
  • we can have more influence than Congressional lobbyists,
  • we can elect Congressmen who will actually reduce unemployment and underemployment instead of just talking about it,
  • we can get Congress to pass tax laws that are fair,
  • we can force Congress to crack down on Wall Street abuses,
  • we can elect lawmakers who don’t waste taxpayers’ money and our natural resources,
  • we can make changes that stop wasting bright young minds and the lives of young soldiers,
  • we can financially benefit from a free market that is finally fair,
  • we can stop further attempts to limit freedom of speech on the internet,
  • we can motivate Congress to care about the long-term future instead of focusing on short-term gains for the biggest campaign contributors,
  • we can liberate members of Congress so they can spend more time working and less time fundraising,
  • we can more easily ban single-mark ballots from state and local governmental elections,
  • we can begin the long process of planning and passing a Constitutional Amendment that will bring the Presidential general-election process into the twenty-first century,
  • we can regain our international stature as a nation that behaves with high standards of fairness,
  • and we can make voter turnout soar when, at last, there are meaningful choices on general-election ballots.

Let’s bring an end to the primitive use of single-mark ballots in Congressional elections.

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