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The Oregonian

Instant runoff: rethinking the dynamics of election spoilers

By Blair Bobier

October 28, 2004

Nobody likes a spoiler, whether it's someone sulking in the corner at a party, someone who ruins a movie by telling you the ending or someone perceived as throwing an election to another candidate.

We would all benefit from eliminating the spoiler dynamics from our election process. Would Al Gore be president now were it not for Ralph Nader? Were it not for Libertarian Tom Cox's campaign, might Kevin Mannix now be governor of Oregon? The reality, of course, is that we don't know for sure. But the suspicion cast by such clouded elections undermines the legitimacy of our electoral process.

Supporters of major-party candidates are understandably frustrated when third-party candidates from the same side of the ideological spectrum draw votes that result in someone at the opposite end of the spectrum winning.

Third-party candidates are frustrated because they can't get their message across. The media won't focus on their issues.

Voters are frustrated because, although they support many third-party candidates' ideas, they face a dilemma: to risk "wasting" their vote on an act of conscience or to vote for the lesser of two evils.

Fortunately, there's a solution. It's called instant runoff voting, which would not only solve the spoiler problem but would improve campaigns. It provides a more accurate reflection of the electorate and would require a majority vote for any candidate to win.

Here's how it works. Instead of voting for just one candidate, voters rank all of the candidates for an office in order of preference.

It's as simple as 1, 2, 3. Voters mark a "1" next to their first choice, a "2" for their second choice and so on.

All the first-choice votes are tallied. If someone wins a majority of these votes, the election is over. If no one gets an outright majority, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and the votes are recounted taking into consideration the second-choice votes from the ballots cast for the eliminated candidate. This is essentially what happens in a two-stage runoff election except with an instant runoff voters don't have to go back to the polls.

What it boils down to is this: If instant runoff voting is implemented, Greens won't "spoil" elections for Democrats nor Libertarians for Republicans (if one believes the conventional assumptions about what are essentially people's second-choice votes).

Instant runoff voting is currently being used to elect the president of Ireland, the mayor of London and various officeholders in Australia. In San Francisco, where it is being used for the first time in city elections, it has promoted cooperative, civil races among rival candidates. That's because candidates know that with instant runoff they have to court the second- and third-choice votes of their opponents' supporters.

You may not be able to do anything about loudmouths spoiling the end of the movie for you, but you can do something about improving our election process. Contact your state legislators and ask them to co-sponsor instant runoff voting legislation in the upcoming session.

Blair Bobier is a founder of the Pacific Green Party and Media Coordinator for the Cobb-LaMarche presidential campaign.

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