Numbers show that bullet voting may be best solution when system is flawed

By Benjamin Tribbett:

Recently The Blue View published a story about the controversy surrounding “bullet voting” in the race for Fairfax County School Board.  There seem to be a number of misconceptions about how this process works, so I wanted to take this opportunity to make the statistics behind an election like this easier for people to understand.

Campaigns in which you vote more than one candidate are extremely complex to win, much more so than races in which only one candidate can win.  The system Fairfax County Democratic Committee is using in this election is actually the worst possible in order to select three candidates from a four candidate field.

Under this system if all voters choose to select three candidates with no “bullet voting”  — ie, voting for one candidate only — or voting for only two, then a candidate could receive support from 74% of the committee and still lose.

You didn’t read that wrong.  Someone with 74% support could actually lose this election.  Here’s why.

When we select three candidates in a four person field, what we are really doing is casting a “no” vote for the candidate who is left out.  If every committee member picked 3 candidates, this is how voting could work out:

26%  vote for candidates A, B and C
25%  vote for candidates A, B and D
25%  vote for candidates A, C and D
24%  vote for candidates B, C and D

Let’s assume 1,000 votes were cast to make the math easier to understand.  Then voting would work out like this

26%  vote for candidates A, B and C (260 votes)
25%  vote for candidates A, B and D (250 votes)
25%  vote for candidates A, C and D (250 votes)
24%  vote for candidates B, C and D (240 votes)

Which would make the election totals as follows:

Candidate A 760 votes (Winner)
Candidate B 750 votes (Winner)
Candidate C 750 votes (Winner)
Candidate D 740 votes (Losing)

So as you can see, it’s actually possible to lose this contest with up to 74.99% support from the committee.  In fact if every committee member casts a full ballot, it is almost certain that the losing candidate would have over 50% support from the committee.

This is not how democracy is supposed to work.

Had we fielded 6-8 candidates this would be a moot point.  Allocating out three votes in a larger field would make it far less likely to have a candidate with over 50% support not be nominated by the committee. But in multi-candidate polls with few candidates competing, the system doesn’t work.

Meanwhile, with the Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) system, each round would produce a winning candidate with over 50% support.  The losing candidate would never get 50% in any rounds.  That’s why it works so much better in a situation like this.

For those unfamiliar with IRV, also called Ranked Choice Voting: voters rank their preferences among candidates, so that poor performing candidates are dropped and their voters’ preferences are reallocated to remaining candidates in successive rounds of vote-counting until the required number of candidates obtains a majority. (Here is a fuller description.)

IRV was the process FCDC used to select its at-large school board candidates in 2015, in the 2017 special election and in some legislative races such as the 2014 election of state Del. Richard “Rip” Sullivan (D-48).  Rep. Don Beyer (D- 8) recently introduced a bill in Congress to change all federal elections to the IRV system.

Back to bullet voting.  That is the only method of voting that would allow a candidate with strong support to cancel out votes of those who are casting their ballots for three candidates against them.  In a process such as the one that was selected, bullet voting is actually a key safeguard against a small number of committee members being able to veto a particular candidate.

One other point- if a candidate encourages their supporters to “bullet” vote, there is nothing wrong with people choosing to call that out if they support other candidates.  This is about coalition building, and that is fair game to critique.  But no one should suggest that voters or candidates not be allowed to use this system as it was designed to best benefit them.  That’s up to the campaign and candidate to calculate how they want to approach an election.  I’m not sure why any candidate would want to allow as small of a group as 26% of the electorate the chance to veto their candidacy.

So whether you are voting for 1, 2 or 3 candidates in the FCDC process, you can be proud of your vote.  Hopefully by the next time we do this, the committee will embrace basic democracy standards and we won’t end up in another situation like this again.



Benjamin Tribbett joined FCDC in 1996 as a teenager and is now a member of the Springfield District Democratic Committee. He is a  political consultant in Fairfax. Since 1999 he has worked on over 100 Democratic campaigns, including 9 “red to blue” pickups in Fairfax County.