elections better, and stopping divisiveness, too
Jesse L. Jackson, Jr. and James D. Henderson
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
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 (
) 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
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
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