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Rescuing Democracy In America:
Why a Loser Gets to Run the Country
By Rob Richie
December 19, 2001

A year after Florida's election debacle, Congress is poised to pass legislation to modernize American voting practices.

The legislation does have some benefits. If fully carried out, millions of previously disenfranchised Americans -- disproportionately poor and of color -- would have their votes counted. Those with poor eyesight could cast a secret ballot, and non-English speakers could vote more effectively.

But any suggestion that Congress is reviving our famously wounded democracy is hooey. In an era of declining voter turnout, particularly among the young, the legislation fails to aggressively strengthen the system. As expected, it addresses neither campaign finance reform, nor proportional representation (a systems in which like-minded voters can win a fair share of seats even when they aren't in the majority) that would ensure that our increasingly diverse population has real representation.

But Congress's biggest disappointment is neglecting to replace plurality voting with the more modern and fair system known as instant runoff voting.

After all, the chads may have grabbed headlines, but the greatest flaw in Florida's election was among the least discussed: George W. Bush won all of the state's electoral votes even though more Floridians at the polls preferred Al Gore. Florida, like other districts, uses plurality voting, meaning that the candidate with the most votes wins all, even if opposed by the majority.

Plurality voting not only jeopardizes majority rule, but it typically suppresses non-major party candidacies, who enrich democracy by bolstering voter participation and invigorating the campaign dialogue. With plurality voting, a vote for a third party candidate can help elect the candidate that the voter dislikes most -- a perversity familiar to those who debated Ralph Nader's candidacy in 2000.

In the words of Ted Halstead and Michael Lind, whose new book The Radical Center includes a passionate appeal for instant runoff voting, or IRV:

Voters in countries with plurality systems like the United States and Britain are offered a stark choice between voting for one of two major national parties or not voting at all. Increasing numbers of Americans have chosen the latter option. The reason seems clear: A plurality of Americans are not satisfied with the political choices that the two-party system provides. And if the two-party system does not fit our multiparty citizenry, then the system, not the citizenry, must give way.

IRV lets voters rank candidates in order of choice rather than just vote for one. If no candidate gets a majority of first choices, candidates with the lowest percentage of the vote are sequentially dropped. Each ballot cast for those eliminated candidates is added to the totals of the next choice indicated on that ballot until a candidate achieves a majority. IRV duplicates a traditional runoff election, but without the need for additional elections.

With IRV, even the colossal imperfections -- chads, butterfly ballots and the like -- in Florida would not have denied Al Gore the presidency. Given a straight choice between Gore and George Bush, Gore would have won Florida and its electoral votes (Because most of the third party vote went to Ralph Nader, whose backers overwhelmingly preferred Gore to Bush). Of course with IRV, in 1992 Ross Perot's votes -- which prevented a majority winner in all but one state -- likely would have narrowed Bill Clinton's electoral and popular vote margin over the senior George Bush. IRV has no ideological bias: it only favors majority winners and encourages the more diverse candidacies needed to mobilize greater voter participation.

Instant runoff voting was designed by an American in 1870. It has been used in national elections in Australia and Ireland for decades. But the current movement in the United States is young, with the first legislation appearing in 1997. Congress and a dozen state legislatures have considered it this year. In 2002 citizens will cast votes on whether to use it for major elections in San Francisco and Alaska.

It also enjoys legislative support in New Mexico, Vermont and California. At a city level, in the last three years Oakland voted to use instant runoff voting for special elections, and San Leandro (Calif.), Vancouver (Wash.), and Santa Clara County (Calif.) have amended their charters to allow its use.

The biggest near-term test for instant runoff voting is in San Francisco, where voters in March, 2002 will decide whether to use it to elect the mayor and other powerful offices. The city currently uses a two-round runoff election.

The goal of traditional (as opposed to instant) runoffs may be laudable, but there are several problems with them. First, they are costly. Taxpayers spend up to $2 million in San Francisco. Second, runoffs can put candidates under tremendous pressure to raise money quickly, giving greater access for special interest contributors. Third, voter turnout generally drops in December; in 2000, San Francisco's runoff generated a paltry 15 percent turnout. Fourth, runoff campaigns often devolve into mudslinging, which history has shown can be particularly divisive in our racially diverse cities.

IRV, in contrast, achieves the same goals without these problems.

If passed, the San Francisco law will take effect in the November 2002 elections for the city's board of supervisors and in November 2003 for the mayor. This would have the added benefit of increasing pressure on election machine vendors to adapt equipment to allow for instant runoff voting, a subtle but critically important development. And it will show other jurisdictions with runoffs just how simple it can be to achieve the goals of a majority winner in one election.

After the 2000 election, Washington, D.C.'s inaction on IRV is unfortunate, leaving the country at risk of once again settling for a president who lacks majority support. Fortunately, the states themselves still have plenty of time to convert to instant runoff voting. Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. has already introduced legislation to help: his bill, HR 3232, would pay for a state's new voting equipment in full if it chooses to adopt instant runoff voting for president in time for the 2004 election. So far, Jackson's bill hasn't drawn the attention it deserves.

Elections aren't just a matter of casting and counting votes. They are vehicles for debating issues, organizing citizens and working for change. Instant runoff voting is a simple but powerful change that would protect the principle of majority rule while encouraging a flowering of political choice. The San Francisco campaign presents an opportunity to put this reform more squarely on the national stage where it belongs. Congress should likewise heed the call.

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