. . . The 'Spoiler' Factor
By Matthew Cossolotto
July 30, 2000
With Ralph Nader's nomination as the Green Party's presidential candidate and the likelihood that Pat Buchanan will win the Reform Party nomination, there is increasing talk about these candidates as potential "spoilers" in the presidential race. But as interesting as it may be to speculate about how much support Ralph Nader could siphon from Al Gore, especially in a key state such as California, or how many votes Pat Buchanan could deny George W. Bush, the discussion misses a very important point. The real "spoiler" in the presidential race is the outmoded voting system we use to elect presidents and most other officials.
Our voting system is a winner-takes-all, plurality system. In essence, the candidate with the most votes wins, even if that candidate gets less than 50 percent of the vote. In our presidential elections, of course, we complicate matters by grafting on a rather bizarre electoral college system. This creates a series of individual, state-by-state contests in which the candidate with a plurality of votes in a given state wins all of its electoral college votes.
So our presidential elections boil down to 50 separate state-level elections. This fact fuels the "spoiler" speculation because, by being particularly strong in one state, a given candidate can affect the outcome of the national election.
But here's the interesting point: If we changed the voting system, which after all is not mandated by the Constitution, minor-party or independent candidates would cease to be potential spoilers. They could immediately be seen in a more positive light, as champions of particular groupings of voters or political philosophies that add to our political debate.
Let me stipulate here that I am a big fan of multiparty democracy. I support having more than two major parties competing actively and aggressively for elective office. We suffer from a deficit of diversity at the polls, and that has the effect of dampening turnout and turning people off to politics-as-usual.
The answer isn't to be found in simply putting more candidates or parties on the ballot. The reality is trying to run a multiparty democracy within the limited confines of plurality voting rules can create some perverse incentives. For instance, some Democrats cheered when Pat Buchanan broke from the Republican Party last year, just as some conservatives have been promoting the candidacy of Ralph Nader in an attempt to split the vote on
the Left and hand victory to Bush. This kind of "divide-and-conquer" politics is a dreadful way to run a democracy. People end up spending too much time gaming the current system instead of reforming it.
The good news is that viable alternatives to plurality elections abound. Two-round elections, in which one vote is a runoff, are used in most of the world's presidential races. But a better change could be implemented right now by the states. It's called "instant runoff voting," or IRV. Under IRV, which is currently used to elect the president of Ireland and the mayor of London, voters simply rank the candidates (1, 2, 3) in order of preference. In the coming presidential race, some voters on the left would be able to rank Nader first and Gore second. On the right, a good number of voters might very well rank Buchanan first and Bush second.
If a candidate wins an outright majority of first-preference votes, the count is over and that candidate is declared the winner. But if not, the last-place finisher is eliminated, and ballots cast for that candidate are counted for the next-choice candidate.
The result of this simple change in the voting system is to allow people to vote affirmatively for their candidate of choice without wasting their votes outright or handing the election to a candidate with whom they strongly disagree. It empowers voters while making major-party candidates less vulnerable to spoilers.
Proportional allocation of electoral college seats--on a state-by-state basis--would also address the spoiler problem. This plan, advocated by both Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon during their presidencies, would also permit voters to express their true preferences at the polls.
A state can change the way it votes for president virtually overnight through a simple statute. The long-term health of our democracy suffers from our present system. It's time to change it and make American democracy safe for diversity.