Spoiler Nader b-a-a-c-k
Courts again influencing Florida's elections
Published September 22nd 2004 in Bradenton Herald (FL)
So Ralph Nader once again will act in the role of spoiler in the 2004 presidential election. As in 2000, Nader's presence on the ballot in Florida as a third-party candidate has the potential to swing the outcome to Republican George W. Bush, since any votes for the left-leaning Nader likely would otherwise have gone to Democrat John Kerry.

In 2000, when Nader pulled 97,000 votes on the Green Party ticket, Bush beat Democrat Al Gore in Florida by just 537 votes and, after a 37-day court battle, was awarded Florida's electoral votes and thus the presidency.

Nader's spot on Florida's ballot this year also came after a protracted court battle, with Secretary of State Glenda Hood reprising Katherine Harris' 2000 role to swing the case to the Republicans' desired outcome. Jeb Bush-appointee Hood, saying she was merely "an honest broker" in the legal wrangle, appealed a Leon County Circuit Court ruling that Nader's Reform Party candidacy is a sham that didn't meet Florida's legal requirements for a legitimate third-party. With a member of George W. Bush's 2000 recount legal team, Ken Sukhia, as his attorney, Nader rode Hood's appeal to the Florida Supreme Court - sound familiar? - which Friday ruled he was entitled to a spot on the ballot.

Quite a stretch

So the court has spoken, and the absentee ballots are in the mail to overseas voters. But once again Florida's election system has been gamed by shrewd lawyers and unscrupulous poseurs to tilt the playing field. Only by the broadest stretch of the imagination does Nader's nomination by the Reform Party meet the state's requirements. Presidential candidates either must gather the signatures of 1 percent of qualified voters in the last election (roughly 93,000) or be the nominee of a major or minor party. Minor party candidates are supposed to represent "a national party holding a national convention."

Here is the legitimacy of Ralph Nader. He was nominated by Reform Party National Chairman Shawn O'Hara in a telephone conference call. He accepted the nomination at a "convention" in a Dallas hotel attended by 63 "delegates." Last month, treasurer William Chapman Sr. asked federal elections officials to terminate the party's national status, saying it had just $18.18 in its treasury. This came after a court ordered the party to repay the Federal Election Commission $333,558 owed from the 2000 election when one of its two nominees - the party couldn't agree on just one - was right-wing commentator Pat Buchanan.

As Cal Jilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University who has written extensively on third parties, said, "When a party nominates Buchanan one election and Nader the next, it shows there's no there there."

But it's enough to swing an election - if enough voters decide to waste their votes. Given the tenor of the major-party campaign, with mud-slinging over irrelevancies precluding real debate about genuine issues, it might be tempting to do so simply as "a-pox-on-both-your-houses" protest. But that would be counterproductive, for it could throw Florida's election results into another limbo where courts instead of voters decide the outcome. For better or worse, the two-party system is the one upon which our election process is based, and votes for third parties are simply thrown away.

Consider instant runoff

The Supreme Court may have legitimized the latest Nader charade, but there is no excuse for it to occur again. One solution would be to adopt the Instant Runoff Voting system. Under IRV, when more than two candidates are seeking the same office, voters make a first choice and a second choice. If no candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes, the second choices are counted to determine the winner. This would eliminate the spoiler role of a Nader and ensure the winning candidate truly represented the majority of voters.

In lieu of such a major election change, however, the Legislature should at least amend the third-party law to better define what constitutes a "national party" and a "national convention." A better test would be to stick with the signature route: Require third-party candidates to prove their legitimacy by gathering a certain percentage of voter signatures. Make it 1 percent of all votes cast in the last election if 1 percent of all registered voters is too steep a threshold.

But at least define it to preclude the lawyer-driven competition that has come to pass for democracy in Florida.