Not satisfied with tinkering with the little
details of electoral reform? Take a look at some of these bold
By Robert Kuttner
January 4, 2005
Just over the next horizon are even bolder reforms. They include:
Instant-Runoff Voting. With instant-runoff voting, you
designate more than one choice. If your candidate isn’t in the top
two, your vote automatically goes to your second choice. With this
system, now used for local elections in San Francisco, supporters of
insurgent candidates can vote for their first choice without risking
the unfortunate consequence of helping elect their last choice. If
instant-runoff voting had been in effect in 2000, Al Gore -- the
second choice of most Nader voters -- would have become president.
As Rob Richie of the Center for Voting and Democracy explains,
instant-runoff voting simulates runoffs, but in a single election --
thus guaranteeing that the winner is actually the choice of a
The system has two big benefits: Partisans must think in terms of
practical coalition politics, because candidates need to attract
second-choice votes and first-choice ones, and democracy is
energized, as people alienated by Tweedledum and Tweedledee are
drawn into politics. Under Ireland’s instant-runoff voting system,
the Labour Party’s Mary Robinson became the nation’s first woman
president and most popular politician. When first elected in 1990,
she was the top choice of only 39 percent of voters -- well behind
the Fianna Fail Party candidate’s 44 percent. But when the
third-finishing candidate’s votes were reallocated, Robinson won a
Winner-take-all systems like ours and Britain’s are the exception.
Most European democracies elect legislatures by proportional
representation, and few allow a mere plurality to elect a chief
executive. Richie and his colleagues are organizing grass-roots
efforts to press for instant-runoff voting and other forms of
A Right-to-Vote Amendment. Remarkably, our Constitution
contains numerous provisions about how leaders are chosen, but
nowhere does it guarantee citizens the right to vote and to have
their votes accurately recorded.
Scrap the Electoral College. Sound like a pipe dream? We
almost did it in 1969, when the House of Representatives
overwhelmingly passed an amendment to abolish the Electoral College
in favor of direct election. The measure got a majority, but it was
the victim of a filibuster and never commanded the necessary
two-thirds in the Senate. If it hadn’t rained in Ohio on November
2, John Kerry could well have been the electoral winner but not the
popular winner, leaving both parties “cheated” by the Electoral
College in back-to-back elections. It could happen again.
Meantime, just having a popular movement to abolish the Electoral
College and guarantee every citizen’s right to vote would be good
for American democracy.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect.