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Look to the States for Real Reform

By John B. Anderson
Published August 7th 2001 in Knight Ridder Wire
The National Commission on Federal Election Reform has dutifully made its recommendations. Co-chaired by former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, the commission addressed the electoral malfunctions exposed in Florida, but present across the nation - sloppy, inconsistent and antiquated election administration that analysts believe kept millions from casting a valid vote in 2000.

The commission suggested a few relatively bold ideas - making election day a holiday, restoring voting rights to ex-felons who have served their sentence and preventing early disclosure of east coast presidential results from affecting turnout elsewhere - but focused on presenting the developing consensus on improving election administration. If those improvements are implemented, as many expect, we should see significant improvement in the casting and counting of votes.

But we won't have the world's best electoral process. Florida's problems were the tip of an iceberg that remains largely unexamined. With nearly two-thirds of adults likely to abstain from voting in next year's mid-term congressional elections, we must explore how to encourage new candidates who can speak for these no-shows and strengthen our democracy.

Don't rely on the federal government and standard-bearers of the major parties for innovation, however. States are more likely to lead the way. Indeed, we are already seeing movement in states toward two ground-breaking electoral reforms: instant runoff voting and cumulative voting.

The case for instant runoff voting (IRV) is simple: it is the best way to provide for majority rule when there are more than two candidates. In 2000, the combined vote for Al Gore and Ralph Nader was more than 50% in both Florida and the nation. But with our plurality voting rules, the candidate with the most votes wins, even if opposed by most voters. A minority can end up defeating the clear wishes of the majority.

IRV is like a traditional runoff in which the top two candidates face off in a second election. But while traditional runoffs create extra costs for candidates and taxpayers, IRV produces a majority winner in one round of voting. Voters just have to rank candidates in order of choice: 1, 2, 3 - a snap with modern voting equipment.

IRV does not favor any particular party. If IRV had been used in recent elections, Al Gore might be president. But Republicans likely would run the U.S. Senate, as three Republicans have lost in races where Libertarian Party candidates received more votes than the winning margin.

The point is not which party a reform helps: it is how it helps voters. We need new voices and better choices, as too many people are turned off by the combination of negative attacks and the nauseating wooing of undecided voters that comes with a two-party race. Yet we don't want those better choices to prevent achievement of the popular will.

IRV is gaining support. Alaska will vote next year on whether to adopt it for federal and state elections, and in March San Francisco will vote on whether to use IRV for mayoral elections. Legislation to implement IRV for federal offices has passed New Mexico's senate and gained the support of Vermont's governor and leading civic groups. Thirteen states considered IRV legislation this year.

IRV won't make lopsided races more competitive, however, which brings us to a process as broken as ballot-counting: redistricting. Right now legislators across America are fighting over who will enjoy "safe seats" in the coming decade -- meaning "safe" from voters. They are literally choosing their constituents before their constituents choose them.

My homestate of Illinois has an answer. Last month a task force headed by former Republican governor Jim Edgar and Democratic Congressman Abner Mikva called for reviving cumulative voting for its state legislative elections. Legislation is gathering support, and supporters may turn to an initiative.

With a range of choices in districts with three or more representatives, cumulative voting represents like-minded voters in more accurate proportion to their numbers. Before it was a casualty of a 1980 amendment focused on shrinking the Illinois legislature, it generated more competition, softened regional polarization and provided a natural means to represent more women, political independents and racial minorities -- speaking to issues familiar to states across the nation.

The federal government must strengthen our electoral foundation, but look to states, our laboratories of democracy, for real reforms like instant runoff voting and cumulative voting.

Chair of the Center for Voting and Democracy, John B. Anderson served in Congress for two decades and ran for president in 1980.