Baltimore Sun

Change Elections to Instant Runoff Voting

By Rob Richie and Steven Hill
January 2, 2001  

WASHINGTON -- Americans are assessing the aftermath of a presidential roller coaster ride. Election 2000, in which George W. Bush was elected president despite losing the popular vote by more than 300,000, bolsters long-standing calls for changing how we elect our president.

According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, about six in 10 Americans say they want to abolish the Electoral College and select the president by direct popular vote. But this will be difficult to accomplish, since it requires a constitutional amendment and support from three-quarters of the state legislatures and two-thirds of the U.S. House and Senate.

Perhaps the most realistic proposal would be to require that the winner of a state's electoral votes must have the support of a majority of voters in that state. States have the power to legislate this reform themselves. That would fix the current problem whereby the presidential winner of a particular state is not even required to reach a majority of the popular vote to win that state's electoral votes. Indeed, the winner of more than half of the states decided in the last three presidential elections was opposed by a majority of voters in that state.

Without a majority threshold, popular majorities can be fractured by the presence of a third-party candidate in any state. Just as Ross Perot cut into George Bush's support in 1992 in key states, Al Gore was hurt in Florida more by the tens of thousands who supported Ralph Nader than any ballot irregularities. Requiring the winner of each state to reach a majority would fix this sort of mischief.

One approach to produce a majority winner in each state would be a two-round runoff, like that used in primary elections of most Southern states. But a second round of voting in each state would be expensive both for candidates and taxpayers. The campaign season would drag out, and many weary voters often don't turn out for the second election.

A more efficient and inexpensive method would be to use instant runoff voting. This system, which has been used for decades by the Australians and the Irish for national elections, and now to elect the mayor of London, simulates a two-round runoff election in one round of voting. It corrects the defects of traditional runoffs and improves their benefits.

At the polls, people would vote for their favorite candidate but also could indicate a second or runoff choice in case their favorite runs poorly plus a third choice in case their second choice also loses. If a candidate receives a majority of first choices, he wins all the electoral votes for that state. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and ballots are counted again in a second round.

Rounds of counting continue until there is a majority winner. It's like conducting a series of runoff elections, but without voters returning to the polls.

Rather than tinkering with the Electoral College, some reformers would like to muster support and pass a constitutional amendment to do away with this 18th-century anachronism. All of our other elections are by a direct vote of the people. Why not the president?

But problems could arise with a national direct election. For instance, what if the highest vote getter only receives 35 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate race? That possibility presents problems of legitimacy. Consequently, some reformers call for a second national runoff between the top two finishers if no candidate receives at least 40 percent of the vote.

But 40 percent is too low for winning our highest office. To avoid minority rule, the president should be required to command majority support. And instant runoff voting would be the most efficient way to reach that majority.

If Election 2000 showed us anything, it's that standardizing voting machines, recount procedures and design of ballots are essential to the integrity of our elections. But let's not stop there. More than voting equipment needs to be repaired to protect voters' rights to elect the candidate of choice.

If we cannot muster the political will to abolish the Electoral College, we should require that presidential winners of each state win a majority of the statewide popular vote.

"Majority rules" is a basic tenet of democracy, and the antiquated 18th-century institution of the Electoral College fails this test.

 Rob Richie and Steven Hill of the Center for Voting and Democracy are co-authors of "Reflecting All of Us" (Beacon Press, 1999).