Admirers of former President George H.W. Bush have said all along that Ross Perot's third-party candidacy in 1992 took enough votes from Bush to allow Bill Clinton to win the presidency. It's clear that Ralph Nader kept Al Gore out of the White House in 2000 by diverting enough votes in Florida to tip the state, and the Electoral College outcome, to another Bush.
Now Democrats are worrying that New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg might run as an independent in 2008 and take critical votes from their nominee in key states. Nader himself may run again. And an organization called Unity08 plans to hold an online convention to select still another candidate, with unforeseeable side effects.
The bottom line, of course, is that independents and third-party members have every right to run for public office if they can get the backing and the money. Citizens have every right to vote for them if they choose. No one should have to worry that by running or casting a vote they were helping elect someone else whom they might detest.
It so happens that there's a way to fix the system to do away with the spoiler problem -- not in time for 2008, unfortunately, but for the long haul. It's called Instant Runoff Voting.
In IRV, voters rank the candidates in the order of their preference. When the ballots are counted, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated, and the second-place votes on his or her ballots are redistributed among the remaining candidates. This goes on until one candidate has a majority and is declared elected.
IRV's biggest cheerleader in New Jersey is Assemblyman Bill Baroni, R-Hamilton. The other day, Baroni pointed out with satisfaction how smoothly IRV had worked in the recent Irish parliamentary elections. It's also used in other countries and cities around the world, and in a handful of places in the United States, such as San Francisco, Minneapolis, Oakland, Calif., and Burlington, Vt.
Baroni has introduced a bill, AJR57, calling for a 10-member commission to study IRV and "evaluate the process, its advantages and disadvantages, the types of voting equipment and ballots needed, and make recommendations as to whether the process is effective, efficient and fair and should be adopted in this state."
"The whole issue of electoral reform is to make sure the intention of the voter is reflected in the result, and it's now getting the attention of legislatures and the people," Baroni said. "You see it in laws like ours that require electronic voting machines to provide a paper trail, and in the discussions about changing the Electoral College and giving candidates greater access to the ballot. IRV should be part of the conversation.
"We should be studying IRV. That's a reasonable request. My bill would ask a group of really smart New Jerseyans, like David Rebovich (of Rider University), Ingrid Reed (of the Eagleton Institute) and Renee Steinhagen (of Newark's NJ Appleseed Public Interest Law Center) to identify the questions that need to be answered. As we buy and retrofit voting machines around the state, it's important to make sure they are compatible with IRV if and when we decide to adopt it."