Media coverage of IRV during campaign season
October 29, 2000: The presidential race is the closest in recent history, Greens and Democrats are attacking each other, Republicans are running ads for Ralph Nader and the media is increasing discussion of instant runoff voting as the sensible solution to the "spoiler" problem and the breakdown of majority rule. Scroll down for 4 recent commentaries.
RUNOFF SYSTEM SUGGESTED John B. Anderson, who won 6.6 percent of the vote as an independent presidential candidate in 1980, says some of the hand-wringing among left-leaning voters would be unnecessary if the nation adopted an "instant runoff" system of voting. In the system, used in some European countries, voters rank candidates in order of preference; if no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote, the second choices of voters whose first choices were eliminated are counted. "If you had that system, Nader would zoom in the polls," Mr. Anderson said. But, he said, Ralph Nader's supporters would have a say in the second round between major-party candidates. Mr. Anderson, who is supporting Mr. Nader, the Green Party nominee, is president of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonpartisan group that studies electoral systems.
The Problem With Plurality Politics
Increasingly not, says Robert Richie of the Washington-based Center for Voting and Democracy, which researches voting systems and voter participation.
Richie and his staff have just completed a major study of plurality winners in federal and state elections. They found that plurality winners have become more common in the past decade, as third-party and independent candidates such as Ross Perot capture the imagination of dissatisfied voters and claim large chunks of the vote or even, in Jesse Ventura's case, pull off an upset.
That lucky bubba Bill Clinton is, of course, the best example of a plurality winner--claiming the White House with just 43 percent of the popular vote in 1992 and 49 percent in 1996.
Clinton's far from alone, however. Richie found that, since 1992, 16 U.S. Senate races were won by a candidate who captured less than a majority of the vote, or one out of every eight contested seats in the past four federal elections. Since 1908, a total of 130 Senate seats have been won by plurality, according to Richie.
Also in the past eight years, 76 seats in the House of Representatives were won by a plurality, or 4 percent. žMore governors were elected by plurality as well,Ó Richie wrote in his study. žOf 50 sitting governors, 15 (30 percent) won one of their general elections in the 1990s by plurality, including two governors who won while running outside the major parties.Ó
What's wrong with plurality winners? Their victories often come at the expense of the candidate who would have been the choice of voters in a two-candidate race, Richie said. Thus the winner is the candidate who was disliked by a majority of the voters.
Richie cites the 1998 Senate campaign in Nevada as a recent example. Incumbent Democrat Harry Reid won with 47.9 percent of the vote, defeating the Republican candidate, then-Rep. John Ensign, by 421 votes. žWhat makes this case interesting is that the Libertarian candidate, Michael Cloud, received more than 8,000 votes or 1.8 percentÓ of the total, Richie said. žConsidering the leanings of most Libertarians, it is likely that these votes come primarily from people who would have voted for a Republican.Ó
Vice President Gore is making exactly the same argument to supporters of Green Party presidential nominee Ralph Nader: A vote for Nader is, in effect, a vote for Texas Gov. George W. Bush. And given the generally lefty and anti-establishment 'tudes of Nader voters, Gore's probably right.
Richie's solution is what he calls Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). Voters would mark their first choice on the ballot, but also a second choice and a third if there are three candidates, and so on, in descending order of preference.
If a candidate receives a majority of first choices, he or she wins. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and the second-choice votes are apportioned to the remaining candidates, Richie said. The rounds of counting (and eliminating) continue until one candidate gets a majority of the votes.
Richie's proposal would require changing elections law across the country and, arguably, the Constitution. But, he said, žGiven the increasing number of plurality victories in Senate races, adopting IRV would be an important step toward building a healthier democracy.Ó
Note: Steve Mulroy, a professor of law and attorney formerly with the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, wrote the following Letter to the Editor to correct Morin's suggestion that IRV might require a constitutional amendment:
To the Editor:
In an otherwise excellent critique of our election system's flaws [The Problem with Plurality Politics, 10/29], Richard Morin incorrectly states that implementing "instant runoff voting" -- in which voters could, e.g., rank Ralph Nader their first preference, Al Gore their second, George Bush their third, etc. -- could require a constitutional change. Voting systems that allow voters to rank candidates in order of preference have long been used in the U.S., and they pass constitutional muster. States could constitutionally provide for this type of "rank preference" voting to elect officials at all levels and to apportion presidential Electoral College votes from each state. As long as a State didn't try to collapse the primary and general elections into one big contest, I don't think a serious constitutional issue would arise. [CVD comment: combining the primary and general elections is constitutional as long as parties retain the ability to nominate candidates by convention or privately-administered primary elections.]
Trenton Times (NJ)
October 27: The New York Times yesterday editorially spanked Ralph Nader for continuing his run for the presidency on the Green Party ticket. Under the headline "Mr. Nader's Electoral Mischief," The Times charged that the long-time consumer advocate is misleading the voters when he claims that there are no clear policy choices between the major party candidates, George W. Bush and Al Gore. The newspaper deplored the fact that the Nader candidacy could be a "spoiler," siphoning enough votes away from Mr. Gore in key states to throw the election to Mr. Bush. "We would regard Mr. Nader's willful prankishness as a disservice to the electorate no matter whose campaign he was hurting," The Times said. "The country deserves a clear up-or-down vote between Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore, who have waged a hard, substantive and clean campaign."
The Times is correct on all those points. Nevertheless, this is America, where anyone who has the audacity and the message has a perfect right to run for president, and where voters have a right to a ignore the two major-party candidates and vote, if they wish, for a Green Party candidate, a Libertarian, a Socialist or a Vegetarian, without feeling that their ballot has been wasted or that what they actually are doing is helping elect someone whose views and principles they despise. How to reconcile these conflicting democratic interests?
It can be done; it is being done in Ireland, Australia, London and other foreign venues. The secret is "instant runoff" voting -- IRV -- which the Green Party, among others, advocates. It's a system that ensures that the winner will have a majority of the votes cast, thus giving him or her a mandate. But it also ensures that the public will hear the voices of candidates who disagree with the positions of the two major parties and have different issues to raise and solutions to propose.
Under IRV, voters cast ballots for their first-, second- and third-choice candidates. If no candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, the last-place finisher's second-choice votes are redistributed among the remaining candidates. The process continues until one candidate gets a majority. In Ireland in 1996, Mary McAleese, one of five candidates for the presidency, gained only 45 percent of first-choice votes. But she was the second choice of enough supporters of losing candidates to win easily with 58 percent after the bottom three candidates were eliminated.
IRV would be suitable for any election in which more than two candidates compete. The more candidates there are in the field -- recall the crowded fields in some Trenton City Council races, or New Jersey gubernatorial primaries -- the greater the chance, under the present system, of a candidate winning with less than a majority, and, therefore, the greater the benefit of switching to IRV. The change would greatly improve the democratic process. It ought to be made.
The last third-party candidate to win a presidential election was that Illinois upstart Abe Lincoln and his newfangled Republican Party in 1860.
And to be totally honest, Abe managed just 39.8 percent of the popular vote, but he carried the key states needed to win the Electoral College vote.
The best third-party showing since Abe was in 1912, when former-President Teddy Roosevelt finished runner-up to Woodrow Wilson, who got less than 42 percent of the vote but still became our president.
Since World War II, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton (twice) have all been elected president while capturing less than half of the popular vote.
Our election rules reduce third-party candidates to the role of spoiler.
Ross Perot's 18.9 percent of the vote in 1996 allowed Clinton to win even though 57 percent of voters voted against Clinton. In 1968, George Wallace won a few Southern states and captured 13.5 percent of the vote, allowing Richard Nixon to win with 43.4 percent of the popular vote.
This year, if George W. Bush nabs less than half the vote but still beats Al Gore, some liberals will need to adorn their car bumpers with stickers reading, "Yikes! Go ahead and blame me, I voted for Nader."
Presidential challenger Ralph Nader of the Green Party can't win. His philosophy is closer to that of Democrat Gore than to that of Republican Bush, but Nader may siphon enough liberal votes from Gore to hand the election (and issues such as abortion and the environment) to Bush.
The opposition to Bush is why many a Nader supporter feels forced to check his conscience at the voting booth curtain and cast a ballot for Gore.
"Sometimes voting for your favorite candidate can help elect your least favorite candidate," explains Eric Olson, deputy director of the nonpartisan Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington. "The current voting system can penalize you for voting for your favorite candidate."
In states where Gore has it locked up, Nader fans may feel free to vote for their man. But in states that are close, such as Illinois, a vote for Nader could be, in effect, a vote for Bush.
(I'm not extending this third-party spoiler role to Pat Buchanan since he is more of a Third-Reich candidate and isn't expected to have much impact on Bush.)
To fix the "spoiler problem," the Center for Voting and Democracy - and its president, John Anderson, a former third-party candidate from Illinois - suggest the "instant runoff" approach to casting ballots.
Under that plan, voters would rank the candidates. A liberal could put Nader first, Gore second and Bush third. If no candidate captures the majority of the votes, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes (probably Nader) would be eliminated and the second-place votes on those ballots would be counted. This continues until one candidate captures more than 50 percent of the vote.
In 1992, this would have meant Perot voters would have had their second choices counted.
It's not a difficult concept. We do it all the time at the video store. You want to rent "The Godfather." If it's gone, you'll take "The Godfather Part II." But if both of those are gone, you'll change your philosophy and vote for "Toy Story 2."
According to the center's Web site at http://www.fairvote.org, instant runoff elections have been used in Australia, Ireland and some cities in this country. States such as Vermont, New Mexico and Alaska are considering using instant runoff elections to decide some races, Olson says.
If we had instant runoff, the winner of this election would become something our democratic republic hasn't seen since 1988 - a president who actually had more people vote for him than against him.
The Capital Times (Madison, WI)
There's a move afoot in the land that could make all this agonizing over whether to vote for a third party candidate a moot point.
The concept, being pushed by the Center for Voting and Democracy, is called "instant runoff voting.''
It's certainly an idea worth debating. You can get more information about the system on the center's Web site: www.fairvote.org.