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Oshkosh Northwestern

Commentary: Two-party system spoils real choice in elections

By Tony Palmeri

November 7, 2004

Since obtaining 9 percent of the vote in my attempt as a Green Party candidate to unseat Gregg Underheim, I have been attacked as a “spoiler” by a small group of Gordon Hintz supporters who arrogantly insist that my votes would have gone to the Democrat. This is the same tired, bitter, and false malarkey trotted out every time third party candidates step forward to challenge our sick political system and the narrow choices it provides us.

My supporters are Greens, Independents, first time voters, Democrats, Republicans and many others. Had I not been in the race, a good number of my supporters would have voted for Dan Carpenter or not voted. Neither Hintz nor Underheim are entitled to these votes just because they are establishment party candidates. We should applaud third party and independent candidates for having the courage to say “No!” to politics as usual.

For the majority of voters and non-voters, the choice between the establishment party candidates is the choice between the “evil” and “lesser evil.” Whenever a voter has an opportunity to vote for a third party candidate that represents their hopes and values, the voter is told that they are “wasting” their vote and that their favorite candidate will “spoil” the election for one of the establishment candidates. Millions of voters nationwide end up voting for something that they don’t want because what they actually do want “can't win.” Millions more simply do not vote at all.

The solution cannot be to tell third party candidates to shut up or not run for office. The solution cannot be to tell Palmeri and Carpenter voters that they don't have the right to vote for their favorite candidates. These are unrealistic, totalitarian solutions that give us citizens apathy, lack of meaningful choices at the polls, and politics as usual.

In this year's race for the 54th assembly district, the real spoiler was the “plurality” voting method that allowed Underheim to win the election even though a majority of voters (54 percent) chose other candidates.

The solution is very simple. In any multiple-candidate race where the first-place candidate does not receive more than 50 percent of the vote, there should be a runoff election between the top two candidates. The runoff could take place two weeks or a month later, and it would ensure that the winner goes to Madison with a clear majority of votes. Many states and municipalities already use runoff voting.

An even better solution is Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). Also known as ‘rank choice’ voting, IRV allows voters to vote for their first, second, and third choice candidates in one trip to the polls. If no candidate is the first choice of at least 50 percent of the voters, IRV allows for a same day runoff. IRV ensures that the winning candidate enjoys true support from the majority of the voters and it eliminates the concern that a vote for a third party candidate is “wasted.” Assembly Bill 911 would allow IRV in Wisconsin, yet neither major party seems too motivated to see it pass. They’d rather see third parties go away, which is not going to happen.

The Democratic and Republican parties at various times have been outraged by third party “stealing” of “their” votes. Yet rather than reform our antiquated, unfair, and undemocratic election procedures, they choose to attack third party and independent candidates as “spoilers.” The truth is that the Republican and Democratic leadership feel they benefit from the corrupt system in place, so they feel no great pressure to change it.

For those Oshkosh citizens taking nasty, cheap shots at Dan Carpenter and myself, I urge you to become an activist to reform Wisconsin's elections. Support AB 911. The bill is stalled in committee and will not pass unless citizens demand it.

It is impossible for independents and third parties to spoil a system that is already spoiled. Instead of wasting valuable time and energy attacking thousands for exercising their democratic rights, let's start a real citizens' movement to bring some necessary reforms to our state. Absent such a movement, we will never get reforms from the corporate occupied legislatures in Madison and Washington.

Tony Palmeri is a professor of communications at UW-Oshkosh.

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