Rescuing Democracy In America:
Loser Gets to Run the Country
December 19, 2001
A year after
Florida's election debacle, Congress is poised to pass
legislation to modernize American voting practices.
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
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.
words of Ted Halstead and Michael Lind, whose new book The
Radical Center includes a passionate appeal for instant runoff
voting, or IRV:
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
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.