Friday, June 14, 2019

Elections with a Large Number of Candidates

Some online elections at OpaVote have a very large number of candidates. We'll sometimes see a single contest with hundreds of candidates or many contests where each contest has a large number of candidates.

An OpaVote manager recently asked me the best way to run an election with a large number of candidates. The best answer is don't run an election with a large number of candidates! In some instances, it may be unavoidable, but as an election manager, you should work hard to have a reasonable number of candidates.

In this blog post, we explain (1) why should not have a large number of candidates and (2) if you do, how to improve the process.

Don't Run Elections with a Large Number of Candidates

As an election manager, by asking your voters to vote in an election, you are asking each of your voters to do a favor for you. Your voters are busy people, and they have lots of things going on in their lives. They also get overwhelmed with emails. You are lucky if they open the voting email, never mind clicking a link in the email and then reviewing a list of candidates to cast a vote.


In elementary or primary schools, we are taught at an impressionable age that the right to vote is an important part of democracy, and that as good citizens we should exercise that right to vote. But let's be honest, voting is more of a burden than anything. Your job as election manager is to minimize that burden as much as possible so that more of your voters will vote.

One way to reduce the burden is to run elections online. It is certainly much easier to vote from your phone than to travel to a meeting to vote in person (though for some elections you may want people to vote in person). But even with an online ballot, you need to further reduce the burden as much as possible.

There are a number of ways to increase voter turnout, but one of the most important is to have a reasonable number of candidates. Suppose you have 50 people running for a position. Do you expect voters to review the qualifications and platform of each of the 50 candidates to cast an informed vote? In our experience, most voters will be overwhelmed and just not vote.

How many candidates is ok? It depends on the specifics of your election. If it easy for voters to evaluate the candidates (e.g., high school elections where voters know all the candidates) then more candidates is ok. If the voters don't know the candidates and need to do research to understand the candidates, then you should have fewer candidates.

If you are using ranked-choice voting to elect a single person, then we recommend no more than 5 and certainly less than 10 candidates.

If you are using the single transferable vote to elect multiple people, then we recommend no more than 10 and certainly less than 20 candidates.

What to do when you have a large number of candidates?

If you are electing a single person, then here are some changes you can make to reduce the number of candidates:

  • Run the election in two stages where each stage is an election. In the first stage, people are voting for candidates to make it to the second stage. In the second stage, people are voting for the winner. For example, the first stage may have 20 candidates and the second state may have 5 candidates. The first stage will still be an election with a large number of candidates, but since we are narrowing down the candidates to a pool of 5, the consequences are lower.
  • Increase the requirements for becoming a candidate. For example, if 10 signatures are required to become a candidate, then increase the number to 20.
If you are electing a group of people, then you could do the same two changes above or the following:

  • Split the group into two smaller groups. For example, suppose you are electing a committee of 10 people to represent a city. You can split this into two elections where you are electing 2 committees of 5 people. An example is to split geographically. You can have a committee of 5 to represent east side of your city and a committee of 5 to represent the west side of your city.
  • Reduce the number of people being elected. Instead of electing a committee of 10 people, elect a committee of 5 people. This may not reduce the number of candidates directly, but it is something to consider in addition to the above.

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