Excerpt from The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics
By Ted Halstead and Michael Lind
(Doubleday Press Copyright 2001)

From Chapter Three: Digital Era Democracy (Pages 112-115)

...American politics is dominated by two parties because we have yet to abandon an outdated electoral system inherited from eighteenth-century Britain. The United States is one of a dwindling number of democracies, most of them English-speaking countries, which use an archaic electoral system known as plurality or first-past-the-post voting. The plurality system elects legislators from single-member districts and can yield perverse results. In a two-way race, the candidate with a majority of votes wins. But in a race with three or more candidates, the candidate who receives the most votes wins, even if that candidate receives less than a majority of the votes. In other words, if there are more than two candidates, the winner may be a politician whom a majority-sometimes an overwhelming majority-of the public voted against. Thus, in a three- or four-way race a candidate with, say, 35 percent of the vote may represent a district, even though 65 percent of the voters wanted somebody else.

You may have heard that a vote for a third party is a wasted vote. Now you see why. Under a plurality voting system like ours, if you vote for a third party in a three-way race you will merely drain off support from the candidate whom you least dislike and promote the election of the candidate whom you would least like to see in office. In the 2000 presidential contest, Ralph Nader siphoned off votes from Al Gore and probably cost him the election, even though most Nader voters probably have preferred Gore to Bush. In the very same way, Ross Perot might have siphoned off enough votes from George Bush Sr. in 1992 to throw the election to Bill Clinton. In other words, if we had an electoral system that more accurately reflected the true choices of the people, George Bush Sr. would probably have won in 1992, but his son George Bush Jr. would most likely have lost in 2000. Because voting for a third party so easily backfires, voters in countries with plurality systems like the United States and Britain are offered a stark choice between voting for one of two major national parties or not voting at all. Increasing numbers of Americans have chosen the latter option. The reason seems clear: A plurality of Americans are not satisfied with the political choices that the two-party system provides. And if the two-party system does not fit our multiparty citizenry, then the system, not the citizenry, must give way.

Are there ways to broaden electoral choices in America without amending our Constitution or moving to a parliamentary system? Yes. One of the most promising reforms that is particularly suited to America's single-member legislative districts and to our elections for single offices-like those of U.S. senators, mayors, governors, and presidents-is "instant runoff voting," alternately called "rank order voting," or "single transferable vote." Whatever name this system goes by, its basic principle is to allow voters to register the order in which they prefer three or more candidates on their ballots. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, then the second-choice votes are redistributed, and third-choice votes, and so on, until one candidate passes the 50 percent mark. The result would be the same as a runoff election, except that the initial election and the runoff would take place simultaneously-thus the term instant runoff.

If, in the 2000 presidential race, the president had been elected by instant runoff instead of by the plurality method in the Electoral College, voters would have been asked to put a 1 or a 2 or a 3 or a 4 after the names of George Bush, Al Gore, Ralph Nader, and Patrick Buchanan. Since no candidate won a majority, Nader and Buchanan would have been dropped and the second-choice votes of those who voted for them would have been redistributed to Gore and Bush. In a crude attempt to mimic an instant runoff system, so-called Nader Traders in the 2000 election tried to register their support for Nader without undermining Gore by swapping pro-Nader votes in states safe for Gore with pro-Gore votes in swing states. If instant runoff voting were formally adopted, this kind of contorted strategy would not be necessary.

The benefit of the instant runoff approach is that it would remove some of the barriers that prevent serious third or fourth parties from emerging, while at the same time ensuring that no fringe or extremist parties could win an election with a small plurality of the vote. In short, an instant runoff system would set a high but not insurmountable bar for the election of third-party or independent candidates. At the same time, it would encourage more serious candidates to run on independent or third-party platforms, since they could no longer be tarred or dismissed as spoilers by the guardians of the existing two-party system. New information technologies can make the widespread use of instant runoff voting both practical and efficient.

Instant runoff voting is one of many ways we could move from our current system of plurality voting to a new system of "choice voting" (also known as proportional representation). Most elections in the United States are for single-member districts, but this need not be the case-particularly when it comes to the election of U.S. congressman and state legislators. The advantage of multimember districts is that they allow for a greater range of candidates and parties. Imagine, for example, if a dozen candidates were running for a five-member delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives, and voters put a 1, a 2, and so on next to the names of the candidates, in order of preference. In this way, voters would be able to mix and match different parties, or to vote for independent candidates on the ballot. This would help ensure that political parties are represented in the government more or less in proportion to their strength in the electorate. The instability that multiparty systems sometimes cause in parliamentary democracies like Israel and Italy could not occur in the United States, where the executive branch is independent of the legislature, and where the president, the House of Representatives, and the Senate are elected by different constituencies.

Replacing plurality voting with choice voting in one or more of these ways not only would broaden the options available to all American voters, but also could ultimately result in one of two long-term transformations in or political system, both of which would be good for our nation and our democracy....