We have outgrown two-party elections; itís time for reform


By Rebecca Manning
Published July 15th 2007 in Asheville Citizen Times
Recent focus on local election changes, together with growing numbers of candidates entering the 2008 presidential race, have created more awareness of the whole issue of election procedures, as well as more questions and misunderstandings.

With all the analysis and speculation, both locally and nationally, about third parties’ failure or impact on the outcome of elections, no one is discussing the reason why they do not win. Perhaps it is because the reason has nothing to do with politics, not directly at least. The shortcoming is in the way we vote and the way we count our votes. And the good news is — we can fix it.

At the May 8 Asheville City Council meeting, two items relating to local election procedures were first presented under new business:

A. A pilot program for IRV — Instant Runoff Voting, failed by a 6-1 vote.

B. The return to partisan elections, approved by a 4-3 vote.

Voters want more choices

The irony is, IRV remedies the arguments in favor of re-involving political parties, i.e. leveling of the playing field, finding shared values, third parties can’t win anyway. Voters want more choices than “D” and “R,” and IRV allows any “party” and “non-party” a fair chance to win.

Some facts about our current election terminology:

* Many officials are elected by receiving a plurality — more votes than anyone else. These elections are called “winner-take-all” elections.

* In winner-take-all elections, candidates often have less than 50 percent support. This means a majority of voters actually preferred other candidates.

* Plurality elections allow a political minority to have monopoly on power.

A better process

What Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) is:

* Eliminates the “spoiler effect” — when two like-minded candidates split their base of support, it often means the “winner will take all” but with less than a majority of the votes. An example of this situation happened in 1992 when Ross Perot gathered 19 percent of the popular vote and Bill Clinton won with only 43 percent. Another example happened in the 2000 Florida race when Ralph Nader drew enough votes from the political left to give George Bush the victory over Al Gore.

* Promotes higher voter turnout.

* Discourages negative campaigning because victories may require candidates to be the second or third choices of other candidates’ supporters.

* Saves taxpayer money.

* Eases administrative burden on election officials.

How IRV works:

* In applied terms:

IRV means you can vote for your first choice candidate, knowing that if your first choice does not get enough votes to win, your vote then goes to your next choice candidate. You do not have to worry that you may be “throwing your vote away.”

IRV can be used in both nonpartisan and partisan elections.

* In technical terms:

First round of counting: Voters rank their preferred candidate first and may also rank additional choices (second, third, etc.). In the first round of counting, the voters’ #1 choices are tallied. A candidate who receives enough first choices to win outright (typically a majority) is declared the winner.

Second round: If no one receives a clear victory, the runoff occurs instantly. The candidates with the fewest votes are removed and the votes made for those candidates are redistributed using voters’ second choices. The process is repeated until one candidate has majority support.

Parties less important

What IRV is not:

IRV and all the other proportional representation voting methods are not about furthering one political party over another — they are about the math behind the way we choose our candidates and the math of how we count our votes. IRV does not change “rule by majority.” It simply removes the roadblock created by having only two choices and the disenfranchisement of the 49 percent to 60 percent of the people who voted for the “losers.” It is not about Democrats and Republicans any more than it is about Greens or Reformers or Libertarians. We would have the same situation we have now with any of those parties, if we only had two.

Please let City Council know what you want. These issues can be revisited. It is no secret we have outgrown our two-party system. With more than 200 million in our voting-age population, expecting everyone to be satisfied with being “either/or” is not working.

Check out FairVote.org for more success stories about voting system reforms. Also, please consider giving your support at the state and federal levels for IRV, multi-member voting districts and returning the election of the president to the popular vote.

Rebecca Manning is a lighting designer living in Asheville, and for the past 15 years has been an advocate of proportional representation, the Center for Voting and Democracy and FairVote.org.