Fixing Elections

The spoiler dilemma of Ralph Nader's candidacy is back, like the hockey-masked villain from a Friday the 13th horror movie that refuses to die. And unfortunately, Democratic Party leaders have done little over the past four years to change the outcome of this movie.

What could Democrats have done? As advocated by the likes of Howard Dean and Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., they could have passed state laws implementing instant-runoff voting for use in presidential elections. The problem is not candidates like Nader but our plurality electoral system, which does not require a majority of votes to win our highest offices. Consequently, popular majorities can fracture their support if there are more than two candidates in a race.

With instant-runoff voting, every voter gains the option of picking not only his or her first-choice candidate but also ranking a second and third choice as his or her runoff choices. If your first choice can't win, your vote goes to your runoff choice. The runoff rankings are used to elect a winner with majority support in one election. Instant-runoff voting, which is used to elect the mayor of London, president of Ireland, and Australia's House of Representatives, simulates a series of runoff elections, but in a single round of voting that corrects the flaws of our current plurality method: the spoiler problem and lack of majority rule.

If Florida had used instant-runoff voting in the 2000 presidential election, the 97,000 Ralph Nader voters would have had the option of ranking a second-runoff choice. No question, thousands would have selected Al Gore, who would have won the state of Florida with a majority of the popular vote and then become president.

Swap the name John Kerry for Al Gore. With instant-runoff voting, not only is the spoiler issue gone, voters are also liberated to vote for the candidates they really like without shooting themselves in the foot by helping to elect the candidates they most detest. Multi-candidate fields are no longer a minefield, as candidates like Nader are free to run and raise their issues. (Let's face it, without a candidate like Nader, centrist Democrats will bury progressive politics even deeper beneath their poll-driven strategies.)

Freed from the spoiler stigma, candidates like Nader could more easily gain access to the presidential debates, mobilize a progressive constituency, and attract young people to politics. Increased attention to progressive issues could move the political center and pull Democrats back to their roots. Instead of working against each other, the Democratic Party and the Green Party could be building coalitions where appropriate.

Given all these positives, what has the Democratic Party done the last four years to implement instant-runoff voting? The answer: not much.

In New Mexico, where the Green Party has cost the Democrats two congressional seats, Democrats have failed several times to pass instant-runoff-voting legislation, though it did pass the state Senate one year. In Alaska, the Democrats opposed a Republican-backed instant-runoff-voting measure because they thought their only way to win elections in a conservative state was to prevent the majority will of Alaskans from prevailing. In Maine, state Senate leaders pushed instant-runoff voting for a time, but the effort stalled over implementation costs. In Vermont, Dean joined the League of Women Voters in promoting instant-runoff voting for statewide offices, but the Democrats in the Legislature have failed to act. Southern Democrats have done little to push the system to replace two-round runoffs, even though instant runoffs would help minorities some by consolidating the runoff election into one race.

In Massachusetts, the recent Democratic primary for governor illustrated yet another reason why Democrats should push instant-runoff voting. Candidate Shannon O'Brien won the nomination with a mere 32 percent of the vote, but, unable to rally her party, she lost in a heavily Democratic state. If the Democrats had used instant-runoff voting for their primary, there is a good chance that a stronger candidate like Robert Reich would have been the nominee. Or if O'Brien had picked up enough runoff rankings to still win the nomination, it would have given her candidacy more legitimacy.

One bright spot has been in the San Francisco Bay Area. In San Francisco, the Democratic Party and allied organizations of labor, civil-rights, and environmental groups, along with the Green Party, supported instant-runoff voting in a successful ballot measure, and San Francisco voters will elect local offices -- including the mayor and city council -- using instant-runoff voting starting this November. California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, a more farsighted elected Democrat than most, strongly supported that effort. In Berkeley, voters passed instant-runoff voting with 72 percent of the vote, with strong support from many Democrats as well as Greens.

Democrats currently control both houses of the state legislature and the governor's office in four battleground states, New Mexico (which Gore won in 2000 by a slim 356 votes) Maine, West Virginia, and Tennessee. With one vote of the legislature and a stroke of the governor's pen, these states could solve their spoiler dilemma by implementing instant-runoff voting this year (no constitutional amendment is required, as each state is permitted to decide for itself how to allocate its electors). The question is, what's stopping them?

It's easy to hurl invective at Nader and his supporters for entering the race. True, Nader also hasn't done enough to push instant-runoff voting (in fact, Green Party presidential nominee David Cobb has been the most vocal advocate). But Nader doesn't have the power to change the rules of the game. The Democrats do, especially in these four battleground states. Apparently, even at the risk of costing themselves the presidential election, they would rather engage in name-calling and the suppression of candidacies than clearing the roadblocks that create the spoiler problem but also allow new political voices to enter the fray.

Steven Hill is a senior analyst at the Center for Voting and Democracy and the author of Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics. Rob Richie is the center's executive director.

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