by Dennis Fox
September 26, 2002
Last week's election must make even the
do-your-duty-hold-your-breath-and-vote bloc wonder if there might be
a better way to run our so-called democracy. Fortunately, there is.
Unfortunately, we're not likely to use it.
In the Democratic primary for governor, the winning Shannon
O'Brien received one in three votes cast in the four-person race.
Since more than two-thirds of registered voters didn't vote, and
since even in Massachusetts not everyone registers, the moderate
O'Brien was the choice of fewer than one in ten voting-age citizens.
That's not much of a mandate to go head-to-head in November against
Republican wonderboy Mitt Romney.
That's also not much of a mandate for our political system. When
most voters stay home, theorists worry about lowered legitimacy, and
the usual pundits harangue people to get off their duffs and out to
the voting booth. Yet when O'Brien and Romney fight for likely
voters in the uncommitted middle, they'll spend just about no effort
talking to the true majority: likely nonvoters.
The same dynamic was evident elsewhere last week. In every
statewide Massachusetts race with more than two candidates, the
victor got a plurality, not a majority. That satisfies our
winner-take-all norms, but it doesn't inspire those who fantasize
that someday they might vote for someone they admire without being
guilt-tripped in return.
Decades ago I received an early lesson in practical politics when
my father explained he couldn't vote for the candidate he thought
best -- I forget the race -- because his favorite could not possibly
win. So he picked the lesser of the two leading evils. A vote for
his real choice would be "wasted."
We'll hear this lesson repeatedly in the next six weeks: Don't
vote for the Green Party's Jill Stein, the Dems will scold, because
you'll just help Romney. Republicans will likewise claim a vote for
Libertarian Carla Howell just helps O'Brien. Although Stein and
Howell might cancel each other out, the pressure to vote for
winnable mediocrity will be intense.
Stein's campaign manager notes there was little pressure on
Robert Reich to stay out of the Democratic primary race to avoid
hurting Warren Tolman's chances, and little pressure on Tolman to
drop out to help Reich. Since more voters opted for one of these two
liberals than voted for O'Brien, a single liberal might have
prevailed. It seems unfair to call the Greens spoilers when
Democrats do such a good job spoiling things for themselves.
The solution? Let citizens vote for the candidate they really
prefer without helping elect someone they detest.
In a run-off election system, for example, when no candidate gets
a majority, a second election is held among the top vote-getters.
That way, people can vote for a Green or Libertarian in the first
round -- or even a liberal Democrat -- and still vote for the lesser
evil later. An easier option is instant runoff voting, in which
voters rank-order all candidates. If there's no majority winner, the
bottom candidate is eliminated and second-choice votes are
distributed; the process continues until someone wins.
The Greens have emphasized instant runoffs since even before
Ralph Nader disrupted the 2000 presidential race. But, if only for
self-preservation, the Democrats should push it, too. The system
would help progressive Democrats prevail in primaries. It would make
now-inevitable challenges from Greens less threatening. And it would
end the embarrassment of asking people not to vote for the best
Indeed, Democrats and Greens might work out a deal. Stein, whose
poll numbers already spell trouble for O'Brien and whose impressive
profile will rise in coming gubernatorial debates, could offer to
withdraw, on one condition: O'Brien and the Democratic politicos who
control the legislature pledge to institute instant runoff voting in
I doubt the Democrats would agree. They'd rather keep their
legislative stranglehold and maintain the party's
all-things-to-all-people blandness, even if it means losing at the
top. So come November I'll root for the Greens, and maybe even for
the half-right Libertarians, and for any other party seeking to
create something closer to democracy.
And if I do head for the voting booth, I won't waste my vote by
simply opting for more of the same.