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Boston Globe

Making elections better, and stopping divisiveness, too

By Jesse L. Jackson, Jr. and James D. Henderson

December 25, 2004

OVER THE PAST couple of months there have been complaints and critiques of how the United States conducts elections. Fortunately, not all such news is bad, and the voters of Massachusetts should take note.

This fall, something remarkable happened during the campaign for the San Francisco board of supervisors. Instead of engaging in the mudslinging and finger-pointing that typifies national and local campaigns, some board candidates were campaigning together and holding joint fund-raisers. Instead of appealing to a narrow band of voters focused on divisive single issues, these candidates presented a broad range of ideas, which everyone could discuss and analyze. These candidates were not delirious -- they were acting strategically. How can this be? The reason is that San Francisco has adopted ranked-choice, or instant runoff, voting.

Instant runoff voting ( IRV ) fixes the shortcomings of elections. Currently, voters feel they have unpleasant options: Either settle for a "lesser evil" or "waste" their vote. Meanwhile, third party and independent candidates are tagged as spoilers and denied access to debates, depriving voters of their viewpoints. Likewise, major party candidates can avoid responding to the positions of alternative candidates, and a victor can take office with the support of fewer than half of constituents.

With IRV, voters simply rank the candidates in order of preference. If one candidate receives an outright majority of first choice votes, that candidate wins. If there is no majority winner, the rankings are used to conduct a series of instant runoffs until one candidate obtains that majority. In each runoff, the candidate with the lowest vote count is eliminated. If the eliminated candidate is your first choice, your vote is then allocated to your next choice. Voters mark only one ballot, and the final result is a winner supported by a majority of voters.

Our current winner-take-all voting system influences voters to cast their ballots in fear of the candidate they dislike, fostering vitriol from the stump and campaign tactics aimed at personalities not public policy. In contrast, IRV encourages candidates to seek top-choice votes from their supporters and still appeal to their opponents' supporters for second- and third-choice votes. In San Francisco, board of supervisor candidates determined that receiving a majority on the first ballot was unlikely -- one district had 22 candidates -- so they began to build coalitions with other candidates in an effort to become at least a voter's second choice. This led to substantive discussions of the issues, a feature missing from many campaigns.

In many states, including Massachusetts, the growth and participation of alternative parties will continue to fuel the need for electoral reforms such as IRV. In one legislative campaign this year, a local newspaper praised the proposals offered by the Green-Rainbow party candidate, but simultaneously worried that that candidate would hurt the reelection chances of the Democrat incumbent against his Republican challenger. Even in local elections, the fear factor is etched into our existing voting system.

In 2006, Massachusetts will again elect its governor from a field likely to include candidates from parties whose platforms offer viable alternatives to those defended by the establishment parties. Yet, unless something changes, the larger parties will marginalize and exclude these alternatives, limiting the choices available to the voters.

Adopting IRV, as proposed in bills filed with the Legislature, could eradicate concerns in both major parties that alternative party candidates might peel off votes somehow destined for their candidate. Voters could then express their true preferences and no longer be subjected to misleading arguments about "spoilers" and "wasted" votes.

Given the opportunity, voters across the country embrace IRV. Illustrating the breadth of support, IRV proposals were approved this year by over 65 percent of the voters in a western Massachusetts district, in Burlington, Vt., and in the Detroit suburb of Ferndale, where the voters were equally split between Republicans and Democrats.

Our current voting procedures have numerous problems, from paperless voting machines to gerrymandering, many of which engender skepticism about how fair and honest our elections and political representatives are. IRV is one solution that could be easily adopted in time for our next state elections. The experiences of the candidates in San Francisco suggest that voters in Massachusetts and elsewhere would warmly embrace the practical and refreshing results of this reform.

Jesse L. Jackson Jr. is a Democratic member of Congress, representing the second district of Illinois. James D. Henderson is a Boston attorney and a member of the Green-Rainbow Party, the Massachusetts affiliate of the Green Party

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