runoff: rethinking the dynamics of election spoilers
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
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
Here's how it works. Instead of voting for just one candidate,
voters rank all of the candidates for an office in order of
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
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
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
Blair Bobier is a founder of the Pacific Green Party and Media
Coordinator for the Cobb-LaMarche presidential campaign.