New IRV Publications
Several recent commentaries on instant runoff voting:
Time to Celebrate Independents' Day:
Minnesota Race to Replace Vento May Provide Another Surprise to the
Roll Call, Oct. 23, 2000
Deputy director of the Center for Voting and Democracy
When Minnesota Rep. Bruce Vento (D) announced his retirement
earlier this year, the chances of a Republican victory in the race
for his traditionally Democratic House seat seemed as unlikely as a
mild Minnesota winter. With a well-funded, well-regarded nominee,
Democrats would seem poised to coast to victory in a district Bill
Clinton won by 28% in 1996.
The fact that the race is instead a wild card has national
implications about how we should adjust our system to reflect the
growing presence of third party candidates in our federal elections.
The state that brought us Jesse Ventura may just have another
surprise up its sleeve -- and provides an early warning to the major
parties about changes in store for our political system.
Ventura's Independence Party has nominated Tom Foley. Of the 4th
district candidates, Foley has the most experience, having served
two decades as an elected and appointed official, and enjoys high
name recognition from his candidacies in Democratic statewide
primaries in 1996 and 1998. He retains many close ties to his old
party's constituencies and recently won the endorsement of former
Senator Eugene McCarthy (I-Minn.).
An August poll found that no candidate was drawing more than 27
percent support, and Foley and the major-party candidates were
within single-digit range of one another. It is conceivable that in
November, voters could split their votes by roughly thirds - 34
percent, 33 percent, 32 percent, say. The winning candidate would
not enjoy a mandate, and as many as 66 percent of voters -? a clear
majority -? theoretically could strongly oppose the winner.
Another scenario is that "spoiler" fears will drive voters away
from Foley, as so often happens to third party candidates. Creating
disincentives to support one's favorite candidate runs counter to
the democratic ideal and helps lower voter turnout. It also does not
prevent "spoiling." Even if Foley loses, his candidacy could tip the
election, just as relatively strong Green Party challenges almost
certainly cost House Democrats special-election victories in New
Mexico in 1997 and 1998, and a Libertarian Senate candidate hurt
Nevada Republican John Ensign's chances in 1998.
Allowing candidates supported by a minority of voters to trump
majority views is, quite simply, undemocratic. As more minor parties
and Independents run for office, our plurality voting system ensures
that the multi-candidate election becomes more like a lottery than a
coherent democracy where majorities elect Representatives.
Some may wish third parties would just go away, but they
shouldn't count on it. More voters than ever are declining to
register as either Republicans or Democrats, and polls consistently
show most Americans would like to see more candidates from outside
the two parties. A trend of significance for the future is that the
younger people are, the more they are interested in Independents.
John Naisbitt argued in his book "Megatrends" that we are becoming a
multiple-option society: for voters in Minnesota's 4th congressional
district, the future is now.
The preference for Independents is not just limited to Minnesota.
Glimpses of that future are visible across the country. Prominent
Independent politicians abound from Ventura to former presidential
candidate Ross Perot to Vermont Rep. Bernie Sanders, as well as
former Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker and Maine Gov. Angus King.
At a national level, more than three-fourths of states were won
by pluralities in presidential elections in 1992 and 1996 -- far
more than in any other two presidential elections in the 20th
century. This year, there has been much hand-wringing among
Democrats over Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, while Pat
Buchanan's potential to siphon off conservative votes from Bush is
causing concern among Republicans.
In Senate races, there were more plurality wins in the 1990s than
had occurred in more than half a century. One in seven U.S. House
districts had a plurality election winner in the 1990s. This year
the Libertarian Party is running candidates in more than half of
congressional races, which may have an impact on Republicans in
several races. The Greens have 56 candidates for House and Senate,
including challenges to such vulnerable Democratic incumbents as
Rush Holt (N.J.) and Mark Udall (Colo.), and a nominee in Debbie
Stabenow's (D) open seat in Michigan.
In Indiana, Republican Rep. David McIntosh's open seat features a
conservative ex-Republican primary candidate running as an
Independent in a three?way race.
The five?way race for Rep. Rick Lazio's (R-N.Y.) seat could be a
roll of the dice. The general election features three
right-of-center candidates: Republican Joan Johnson, her former
Republican primary opponent Robert Walsh on the Right to Life Party
line and Conservative Party nominee Richard Thompson. Left of
center, Stephen Israel won the Democratic nomination, but his main
primary opponent, David Bishop, will appear as the nominee of three
minor parties: Working Families, Green and Independence. Lazio's
successor almost certainly will have fewer votes than the combined
votes of his or her opponents.
So here's the problem. Voters want more choices, and, at least in
some races, are starting to get them. But more choices also means a
potential fracturing of the vote. As a result, more officials will
win without clear majority support and more people who participate
in elections will be without Representatives of their choice. It
means that a handful of candidates who cut into the support of major
parties can swing elections. It means that the "spoiler" conundrum
will make many voters cast ballots against their favorite
There is, however, a fair, tested way to solve this dilemma. It's
a simple system known as "instant runoff voting." Voters simply rank
candidates in order of preference. In a three?candidate election, if
a candidate receives a majority of first choice votes, that
candidate is elected. If no candidate receives a majority of these,
however, the candidate with the fewest first choices is eliminated,
and ballots cast for that candidate are counted for one of the
remaining two candidates according to those ballots' second choices.
Instant runoff voting ensures a majority winner. It frees
minor-party candidates from a spoiler role. It allows voters to
express their true preferences, rather than voting against their
fear of the worst candidates, and reduces the number of wasted
votes. It also results in more consensus winners and cleaner
campaigns, as candidates have an incentive to avoid excessive
mud?slinging when they must compete for second choice support as
well as their core support.
No constitutional changes are needed to implement instant runoff
voting in federal elections. Congress could require states to
implement this process with a simple statutory change, or states and
localities could experiment with it on their own. Alaska, Vermont,
and New Mexico are among the states most seriously considering its
use for major elections. In heavily Republican Alaska, the GOP has
made it a priority after losing gubernatorial elections for the last
two decades -- largely due to splintering of the conservative vote.
In Vermont, Gov. Howard Dean (D) and the two other major
gubernatorial candidates support instant runoff voting. New Mexico's
state Senate passed a bill for its use in state and Congressional
In elections like the one in Minnesota's 4th district, where
third and fourth candidates threaten to "spoil" the election, the
outcomes this November might be contrary to most voters' wishes.
Such skewed results are easily preventable, so it's time we update
our democracy by examining and implementing instant runoff voting
for a more representative future.
If Politics Got Real Ö
by Rob Richie
and Steven Hill, October 16, 2000, The
To Nader or not to Nader, that is the question. A debate over
whether Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader is a savior
or a spoiler has raged for months among progressives. Neither
argument satisfies, however, because both are partly right. Votes
for Nader instead of Al Gore in a close election really could elect
George Bush, with negative consequences for women, minorities,
workers and the environment. Yet without Nader, centrist Democrats
could bury progressivism even deeper.
Given Nader's remarkable career and the potential of his campaign
to build on new movements for fair trade, fair elections and fair
wages, the very debate over his campaign reveals a serious flaw in
our antiquated electoral rules: Voting for your favorite candidate
can lead to the election of your least favorite candidate. Providing
the means to express one's real views and insuring majority rule are
basic requirements of democracy. But our current system badly fails
Fortunately, the British, Australians and Irish have a simple
solution: instant runoff voting (IRV). They share our tradition of
electing candidates by plurality--a system whereby voters have one
vote, and the top vote-getter wins -- but they now also use IRV for
most important elections. Mary Robinson was elected President of
Ireland by IRV. Labor Party maverick Ken Livingstone was elected
mayor of London. The Australian legislature has been elected by IRV
for decades. States could implement IRV right now for all federal
elections, including the presidential race, without changing federal
law or the Constitution.
IRV simulates a series of runoff elections, but in a single round
of voting that corrects the flaws of runoffs and plurality voting.
At the polls, people vote for their favorite candidate, but they
also indicate their second, "runoff," choice and subsequent choices.
If a candidate receives a majority of first choices, the election is
over. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and
a runoff round of counting occurs. In this round your ballot counts
for your top-ranked candidate still in the race. The eliminated
candidate is no longer a "spoiler" because the votes of that
candidate's supporters go to their runoff choice. Rounds of counting
continue until there is a majority winner.
Imagine this year's presidential race with IRV. Nader supporters
worried about George Bush could rank Nader first and Gore second.
Suppose Bush won 45 percent of first choices in a key state, Gore 44
percent, Nader 9 percent and the rest 2 percent. Under current
rules, Bush wins. But with IRV, after Nader loses in the instant
runoff, his supporters would propel Gore above 50 percent and defeat
Bush. Rather than contribute to Gore's defeat, Nader could help stop
Bush, while delivering a message to Gore: Watch your step on trade,
political reform and the environment.
Freed from the spoiler stigma, Nader could more easily gain
access to the presidential debates, inform and mobilize a
progressive constituency and win more votes. Higher turnout and
increased attention to progressive issues could move the political
center and help Democrats retake Capitol Hill. The Green Party could
gain a real foothold. In other words, his campaign would be a
win-win, rewarding the energy of young activists, whose belief in
electoral politics would be put at risk by a weak Nader performance.
Surveying past elections, it's intriguing to consider what might
have been. What would have happened with IRV in 1968, when the
anti-Vietnam War movement was left without a champion in the general
election and Richard Nixon narrowly edged out Hubert Humphrey? Might
Jesse Jackson in 1996 have pursued his proposed independent
candidacy, forcing Bill Clinton to justify his moves to the right?
What might socialists Norman Thomas and Henry Wallace have achieved
in the thirties and forties?
Of course, IRV isn't only for liberals. This year it could have
encouraged John McCain to ride his Straight Talk Express over to the
Reform Party, and in past years it could have boosted Ross Perot.
IRV has no ideological bias, as has been proven by its shifting
partisan impact in eight decades of parliamentary elections in
Australia. Its virtue for all sides is that it doesn't punish those
ready to challenge the status quo.
At the same time, IRV is proving a winning argument for both
Democrats and Republicans when they are confronted with potential
spoilers. Worried by the fact that strong Green candidacies have
split the Democratic vote in two of the state's three House seats,
prominent New Mexico Democrats are backing IRV, and the State Senate
decided in 1999 to give voters a chance to enact IRV for all state
and federal offices. In Alaska the Republican Party, also beset by
split votes, has made a sweeping IRV bill for all state and federal
offices its number-one legislative priority, and advocates have
already collected enough signatures to place IRV on the statewide
ballot in 2002.
Vermont may hold the most immediate promise. Boosted by public
financing, a progressive third-party candidate is mounting a strong
challenge in the governor's race, and an impressive coalition from
across the spectrum supports IRV for statewide elections. Public
financing and IRV are indeed well matched: With IRV, clean-money
candidates could run from across the spectrum without inviting
Cities are also good targets for IRV campaigns. A charter
commission in Austin, Texas, has recommended replacing two-round
runoffs with IRV. Voters in Santa Clara County, California, and
Vancouver, Washington, recently approved ballot measures to make IRV
an explicit option in their charters.
For all IRV's benefits, ours remains a majoritarian system, and
minor-party candidates aren't likely to win office much more than
under plurality rules. To achieve truly fair representation would
require other reforms, such as campaign finance reform and
proportional representation for electing legislators. But IRV is the
best way to eliminate the spoiler dynamic that suppresses
candidacies -- and the debate and participation they could generate.
If progressives learn one lesson from campaign 2000, let it be that
the next presidential campaign should be conducted under fairer
rules. Real democracy needs a rainbow of choices, not the dull gray
that results in one of the lowest voter turnouts in the democratic
Robert Richie and Steven Hill are executive director and western
regional director, respectively, of the Center for Voting and
Democracy, a Washington-based nonprofit organization
(www.fairvote.org), and the authors of Reflecting All of Us
RUNOFF VOTING: A New Way to Vote: Voting Doesn't Have To
By Tom Wicker, TomPaine.com
A number of Democrats who might like to vote for Ralph Nader for
president on the Green ticket are hesitant or unwilling to do so
because they fear their defection from the Democratic ticket might
allow George W. Bush to be elected on the Republican line. Here in
Vermont, some Democrats face the same problem in state politics --
they might prefer to vote for an independent candidate, Anthony
Pollina, but they fear that their failure to vote for the
re-election of Democratic Governor Howard Dean might result in
victory for the Republican candidate, Ruth Dwyer.
This is an old American dilemma, resulting primarily from the
nearly universal use of plurality, winner-take-all voting in U.S.
elections. Suppose, for example, that either Al Gore or George Bush
receives 46 percent of the vote next November, the other wins 39
percent, and Nader polls the other 15 percent (neglecting, for this
hypothetical, all other candidates).
In the first place, the winner will be a minority president, as
many American chief executives -- like Bill Clinton -- have been. In
the second place, if that winner should be George Bush, Nader will
be seen as a "spoiler" whose 15 percent probably cost Gore and the
Democrats the presidential election -- even though 15 percent
actually may underestimate vastly the number of people who preferred
Nader to either major-party candidate.
Ross Perot was seen as just such a spoiler in 1992, after
subtracting enough votes from George Bush the Elder to elect
Clinton. Perot, George Wallace in 1968 and John Anderson in 1980,
all started their third-party campaigns with strong poll showings --
but finished with relatively weak vote totals. That's because such
candidacies, no matter how popular, are seen as inevitable losers --
and voters don't like to throw away their votes on losers.
Plurality voting is a strong reason why third parties and
independent candidates so seldom win and why the two-party system is
so entrenched in American politics. It explains why duly elected
mayors, governors and presidents so often have to govern without an
official, or at least a truly sympathetic, majority, and why so many
Americans resent what they believe is the necessity to cast a
"strategic" though insincere vote rather than one for a candidate
they truly support.
The problems posed by plurality voting could be resolved, and far
more democratic election results obtained, by a change --
unfortunately, one neither simple nor likely -- to a system of
preference voting. In an explanatory acronym, this system is
sometimes called IRV, for "instant runoff voting." Here's how it
would work in November: Gore, Bush, Nader and Patrick Buchanan, the
Reform candidate, all would be listed on the ballot. Instead of
putting an "X" by his or her choice (whether strategic or sincere),
a voter would put a "1" by his or her first choice, a "2" by the
second, a "3" by the third, a "4" by the fourth (and so on, if other
choices were available). When the ballots were counted, if a
candidate had a majority of first choice votes, he (or someday she)
would be elected. But if no one had a majority of first choice
votes, the candidate with the fewest such votes would be eliminated.
In an immediate second count -- in effect, an instant runoff --
the votes that had been cast by supporters of the eliminated
candidate would be redistributed to their designated second choices.
If this gave someone a majority -- even a second- or third-place
finisher in the first round -- that candidate would be elected. If
not, again the candidate with the lowest total would be eliminated.
Votes for that candidate then would be redistributed to his or her
supporters' designated second choices. That would produce a winner
with majority support, eliminate the idea of a "spoiler," make
insincere strategic voting unnecessary, promote the chances of a
third-party or independent (sure to be a loser in the usual
plurality voting system), and give voters a wider range of choices.
It would obviate the cost of the separate, runoff elections
conducted in some constituencies in order to get a majority winner,
as well as the drop-off in turnout such separate runoffs usually
In North Carolina in 1950, for instance, Senator Frank P. Graham
won the Democratic primary with the most votes ever cast for anyone
in any election in the state's history. He did not win a majority,
however, in a three-candidate race; in the run-off necessitated by
state law, turn-out declined drastically, and Graham lost to the
first round runner-up, Willis Smith (who was heavily backed by Jesse
Helms, then a radio commentator, now the state's senior senator).
Turnout could not decline in IRV contests; and proponents believe
IRV might even reduce negative campaigning. Theoretically,
candidates eager to be the second or third choices of voters backing
someone else would not wish to alienate those voters by attacking
their preferred candidate, On the other hand, IRV might undermine
the two-party system, an element of stability but also of the status
quo in the American system. But enhancing the chances of some
independents and third-parties, in some cases, would be useful.
IRV also might confuse voters. It would increase the complexity
of vote-counting and the likelihood of cheating in that process. In
many cases, it also would require constitutional or legal changes
difficult to explain or effect. But it's not a radical or outlandish
idea -- both the American Political Science Association and the
American Psychological Association elect their officials by IRV.
The chief difficulty is the ingrained devotion of Americans both
to plurality voting and the two-party system, which makes any
variation from either seem radical or even subversive. The
Republicans of 1860, with Abraham Lincoln as their candidate, were
the last and only upstart party to win the presidency -- and at that
in a four-party election. Even Theodore Roosevelt couldn't do it, in
his "Bull Moose" campaign of 1912.
In the new millennium, election year 2000 is running true to
form, with neither Nader nor Buchanan or any other two-party deviant
to be included in those decisive televised debates between Bush and
Gore, Republican and Democrat, mainstream versus mainstream. A
detailed explanation of IRV and other forms of non-plurality voting
will be available, however, in time for this year's elections --
though it's not likely to affect them. Behind the Ballot Box, by
Douglas J. Amy, a political scientist at Mount Holyoke College in
South Hadley, Massachusetts, will be published by Praeger in
(Tom Wicker was a columnist for the New York Times for
twenty-five years before retiring in 1991. He is the author of more
than a dozen books including, One of Us: Richard Nixon and the
If a Swing State Cares, It's an
By Michael Lind, New York Times, October 1, 2000
WASHINGTON -- In a nation with 100 million likely voters, the
result of this year's presidential race may be decided by fewer than
Those are the undecided voters in swing states with lots of votes
in the Electoral College. Elementary math explains why both Al Gore
and George W. Bush are paying much less attention to most of the
South, New England and the Mountain West, as well as California, New
York and Texas. These places are reliably Republican or Democratic,
and there is not much point in contesting them.
So big swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin,
Missouri and Florida have been the object of the candidates'
messages, carefully tailored to local voters.
In some ways, Mr. Gore has proved more adept than Mr. Bush at
aiming micro-messages at swing voters in swing states. The vice
president's call for opening the strategic petroleum reserve and his
attacks on Big Oil appeal to Midwestern voters worried about high
heating bills this winter. His support for expanding Medicare to
cover prescription drugs is intended to appeal to elderly voters in
Florida, the one big Southern state in play.
Earlier, Mr. Gore went after another important electoral bloc in
Florida, Cuban-Americans, by disagreeing with the Clinton
administration in the Elian Gonzalez case. Though usually outspoken
on the environment, Mr. Gore has been careful not to stress this
theme too heavily when he is in the Rust Belt, where it is not
popular with manufacturing workers. He has just as carefully avoided
making an issue of gun control, which is unpopular with many Reagan
Democrats in the Midwest.
While Mr. Bush is spending most of his time in swing states, too,
he has not, like Mr. Gore, cobbled together an ad hoc platform that
makes specific promises to specific swing voters. The one exception
may be Latinos, whom Mr. Bush frequently addresses in Spanish. A
number of big swing states have large Latino populations.
In obsessively courting undecided voters in a few places, the
candidates are doing more than neglecting the interests and values
of Americans who do not pay high heating bills. They are neglecting
issues of concern to the nation as a whole.
The federal government spends far more on old people than on
children, for example, but neither candidate will point that out,
for fear of offending elderly swing voters. What should have been a
great debate about the long-term reform of Social Security has
lately been replaced by the wedge-issue politics of prescription
In a close election, time spent on issues of concern to every
American is time lost in addressing the particular interests of the
minuscule number of Americans who will choose the next occupant of
the White House. This is a bad way to elect the president, who
should have support from a wide variety of regions, religions and
Can anything be done, short of replacing the Electoral College
with direct election of the president -- a virtually impossible
reform that would require a constitutional amendment- Fortunately,
it is possible to transform our presidential elections, while
keeping the Electoral College and without amending the Constitution.
All we have to do is change the way that the states allocate their
Today all but two states -- Nebraska, which has five electoral
votes, and Maine, which has four -- give all of their electoral
votes to the winner of the state's popular vote. If every state were
to divide its electoral votes among the candidates on the breakdown
of the popular vote, presidential politics would be reinvigorated.
For example, even if a majority of Californians and New Yorkers
preferred the Democratic candidate, the division of their electoral
votes would give a Republican candidate an incentive to make lots of
visits to these states and to listen to voters' concerns there.
For the same reason, a Democratic presidential candidate, instead
of writing off Texas and even vilifying it, as Vice President Gore
has done, would court the states' substantial minority of Democrats
and independents. A candidate who stressed a few themes of national
importance might rack up more electoral votes nationwide than a
rival who focused on a few important states.
Every state legislature has the power to switch from the
winner-take-all system to a division of its electoral votes.
Nebraska and Maine each give two electoral votes to the winner of
the statewide popular vote, while allocating the remainder according
to the winner of the popular vote within each congressional
Another method would be to assign electoral votes according to
the proportions of the popular vote each candidate won.
Critics of such reforms point out that they would increase the
possibility that no candidate would receive a majority of the
electoral vote, especially in a three-way race in which no candidate
received a majority of the popular vote. In that event, the election
would be thrown into the House of Representatives, with each state
delegation assigned a single vote. (Yes, our Constitution really is
To avoid this crisis, states could adopt a different way of
allocating electoral votes. On Election Day, voters would be asked
to rank candidates in order of preference, marking their first,
second and third choices. Then, when votes were counted, if the
first choice didn't emerge in the top two, a second or third choice
would get the vote.
This so-called instant-runoff system would make it extremely
unlikely that any electoral votes would go to third-party
candidates. Most third-party candidates, like John Anderson in 1980
and Ralph Nader today, have geographically broad but thin support.
And candidates with regionally concentrated support, like George
Wallace in 1968, have a greater chance of creating a constitutional
crisis by piling up electoral votes under the present winner-take-
all system than they would have under an instant-runoff system.
If states switched from the current system, then presidential
candidates would begin hunting for electoral votes all over the
country and paying attention to a greater variety of groups and
interests. The state legislatures should get to work now, so that in
2004 or 2008 we can have a chance to elect a president of the United
States, rather than a president of the swing states.
(Michael Lind, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is
co-author of the forthcoming "The Radical Center." He is a founding
advisory committee member of the Center for Voting and Democracy)
Recipe for School Board
Eric, Olson, Letter to the Editor
Post Monday, October 2, 2000; Page A24
After all the energy spent revamping the District's school board
structure, this fall's election under new rules could easily result
in zero members of the new board receiving majority support from
In both Districts 1 and 3, eight candidates vie for one seat,
while seven compete in District 2. With three running for the key
board president position, it's not hard to imagine more voters
casting ballots for the two combined losing candidates than for the
The elected caretakers of the District's schoolchildren should
enjoy a mandate to run the schools--otherwise all the problems of
finger-pointing, accountability and blame will continue to plague
school governance. Each district could use a runoff election to
narrow candidates to two top vote-getters, ensuring majority support
in a choice between two. Better, elections should use the instant
runoff method, by which voters rank candidates in order of
ERIC C. OLSON Deputy Director Center for Voting and Democracy
The commentary below was circulated by the
Progressive Media Project ([email protected]) and
has appeared in such newspapers as the Detroit Free Press.
Open up our electoral process
John B. Anderson
In 1980, I ran for president as an independent after abandoning
the Republican primaries. Even polling near 25 percent, I was
labeled a spoiler. My candidacy was said to deprive voters of the
clear choice between conservative Republican Ronald Reagan and
Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter. Never mind that my platform
clearly attracted many people uncomfortable with this choice.
So I sympathize with Green Party nominee Ralph Nader, Reform
Party nominee Pat Buchanan, Libertarian Party nominee Harry Browne,
Constitution Party nominee Howard Phillips and Natural Law Party
nominee John Hagelin. They all have something to say, like them or
not. But the Republicans and Democrats don't want you to hear them.
That's why they won't let them in the debates, which start on Oct. 3
Having more candidates participate in at least one general
election debate would strengthen our democracy. As indicated by Ross
Perot's impact in 1992 and Jesse Ventura's prominent role in
Minnesota's gubernatorial debates in 1998, more people would watch,
more ideas would be discussed and, ultimately, more people would
But the issue goes beyond the debate invitation. There is a
fundamental problem with our electoral process. We should not accept
a system where voting for your favorite candidate can contribute
directly to the election of your least favorite.
Unlike in most democracies, here the candidate with the most
votes wins all, even if opposed by a majority of voters. That makes
third-party or independent candidates "spoilers" if they split a
major party candidate's vote. It's this concern that drives the
major parties to exclude other voices from the debates.
Fortunately, there's a solution, one already practiced in London,
Ireland and Australia: instant runoff voting. This is a simple
reform that any state could implement immediately for all federal
elections, including the presidential race. There are significant
efforts to enact instant runoff voting for federal elections in such
states as Alaska, New Mexico and Vermont.
In instant runoff voting, people vote for their favorite
candidate, but also can indicate subsequent choices by ranking their
preferences as 1, 2, 3. If a candidate receives a majority of first
choices, the election is over. If not, the candidate with the fewest
votes is eliminated, and a second round of counting occurs. In this
round, your ballot counts for your top-ranked candidate still in the
race. Rounds of counting continue until there is a majority winner.
With instant runoff voting, we would determine a true majority
winner in one election and banish the spoiler concept. Voters would
not have to calculate possible perverse consequences of voting for
their favorite candidate. They could vote their hopes, not their
Under this system, liberals who like Nader but worry about Bush
could rank Nader first and Gore second. Similarly, some
conservatives could rank Buchanan first and Bush second. Rather than
contributing to Gore's or Bush's defeat, Nader and Buchanan instead
could stimulate debate and mobilize new voters.
Our primitive voting system is this year's real spoiler. Instant
runoff voting would give us a more participatory, vital democracy,
where candidates could be judged on their merits and the will of the
majority could prevail.
[John B. Anderson is the president of the Center for Voting and
Democracy (www.fairvote.org) in Washington, D.C. He served in
Congress from 1961 to 1981 and was an independent presidential
candidate in 1980.
Two-party system gives us freedom from
By JOSHUA SAMUEL BROWN, Colorado Daily,
Our electoral system is simple. We (the people) vote, and these
votes go to a very select group of people called "the Electoral
College." They count our votes, and then they elect the president.
Usually they elect the president that we (the people) have voted
for. This system came about so that we (the people) would have a
kind of "buffer" against the mob rule of we (the people). The
Electoral College is very smart. We (the people) are dumb. We need
the Electoral College to protect us from ourselves. Otherwise, we
might fall for the subliminable (sic) messages of some tyrant,
voting them into office. Hooray for the Electoral College!
Our voting system is also simple. Every four years, we get to
vote for one of two candidates. One of these two people will lose,
and be forced into a life of self-effacing talk-show engagements,
commercial endorsements, and lucrative speaking positions. The other
becomes the most powerful man in the world, for the next four years
at least. If we had only one choice, our country would be called a
dictatorship. Dictatorships are bad. Luckily, we have two choices.
We live in a democracy. Hooray for democracy.
Or so I thought, until this morning, when I had a startling
I was having coffee at a local shop, when I overheard a customer
complaining. It seems there were only two kinds of bagels left --
salt and cranberry walnut -- and the customer was becoming quite
irate over her perceived lack of choice. I felt bad for the
customer. There's something downright un-American about having to
chose between two of anything that you don't like. But in America,
that's precisely the dilemma that most voters have to face every
four years. A choice between, as Gore Vidal put it, "Two products
that nobody wants to buy."
Sure, there's no law that prevents a third-, fourth- or even
no-party candidate from running. However, in a winner-take-all
system like our own, even if they get a lot of votes throughout the
nation, they still probably won't get even one "electoral vote." And
it gets worse. With the electoral system, a race that's incredibly
close in the popular vote can wind up being a landslide victory in
the Electoral College. This gives the winner the illusion that they
have "the mandate of the people," even if more people voted against
them than for them.
But the worst thing about the current system is the situation
that we're drawn into every election year, the ugly conundrum that
we're in right now. An election between major party candidates who
almost nobody (outside of the candidates' immediate families) really
wants to be president. We can't vote for a third-party candidate,
because with the current system that vote will be "wasted." In the
end, we either don't vote, or vote for the candidate whom we dislike
the least. In political circles, this is called "the dildo dilemma."
It's forced sodomy with a twist: You can chose the color dildo that
gets rammed up you. Hooray for freedom of choice -- bend over and
Is there a voting system that will allow us to elect a government
without having to grit our teeth? To find out, I called up the
Center for Voting and Democracy, an information resource center that
specializes in disseminating information about voting systems around
the world. I spoke to Eric Olson, the center's deputy director.
"Eric, first off, is the current system really that bad?" I
"Well Josh," he answered, "imagine if Americans were only given
two choices of breakfast cereal. There'd be rioting in the streets."
"But is there another way?" I asked. "And, most importantly, an
easy-to-understand voting method. Something that even a
simple-minded satirist can understand?"
"Yes, there is," he said. "The Instant Runoff voting system
(IRV). Point your browser to www.fairvote.org/irv/muppets/, and the
Muppets will explain the system to you."
And explain they did (really! Go to the site). Basically, the IRV
system works like this. Rather than voting for one candidate in any
given election, we put a number next to each candidate's name to
indicate how much (or little) we want them to win -- first choice,
second, third, etc.
After the voting is done, the ballots are tallied, and, if there
is no clear majority, the candidate who got the least amount of
first-choice votes is eliminated. The losing candidate's votes are
then distributed to each voter's next available choice. The votes
are then re-tallied, and another candidate is eliminated, their
votes being redistributed to whichever surviving candidate is
indicated as least objectionable by the individual voters. In the
end, one of the candidates winds up with a majority, and is declared
Ireland uses this system to choose the prime minister. London
uses it to chose a mayor. Australians get to chose their entire
Senate through instant-runoff voting. The beauty of this system is
obvious. We are able to vote for our favorite candidates without
having to worry that we're actually helping to elect our least
favorite candidate, which is pretty much the way it works under the
current U.S. system.
The IRV system also empowers the fastest-growing block of voters
in America today -- the disgruntled voter -- free expression at the
voting booth. By prioritizing the candidates, the candidate who wins
knows exactly how many votes came from people who voted for them
only with great reservation. In the end, we (still the people) get
to choose a government that we want instead of having to grit our
teeth and chose between the lesser of two dildos.
... "Evils," I mean.
Special Thanks to Eric Olson at The Center for Voting and
Joshua Samuel Brown is a Boulder based
writer and raconteur who has lived in Taipei, Beijing and Vermont.
Direct all comments, complaints and job offers to