Instant Runoff Voting: Solving
the Nader Dilemma
By Nathan Newman
I spent a chunk of the 2000 election bitterly
condemning Nader for dividing the progressive community and helping
to elect George W. Bush as President
really wanted to vote for him.
This is the dilemma progressives
face every time they face an election with a righteous candidate on
the ballot, who threatens to siphon votes from a less ideal
candidate, who is still better than a third alternative who is even
worse. Your head knows the system is rigged, so you need to vote
strategically, but your heart says go for the candidate saying the
truth about corporate abuses of our democracy.
I say "heart"
because I'm unpersuaded that progressives acting as spoilers "send a
message" to Democrats to pay attention to their base, since
candidates can just as easily look for votes to their right if votes
on their left flank are undependable. As a Hollywood director once
said, "if you want to send a message, send a telegram." Elections
are about power and are played for keeps, as George W. shows
everyday as he hands out goodies to corporate allies and seeks to
appoint rightwing judges to the bench. So losing real power, even if
it seems marginal at times, in pursuit of a pure message is just
irresponsible. Worse, because different progressives line up on
either side of the heart-mind line, such campaigns divide rather
than united the left.
But in February, voters in San Francisco
passed a reform at the ballot that promises to resolve this
heart-mind electoral conflict if implemented nationally. On the same
day, 51 out of 54 Vermont towns supported nonbinding resolutions
calling for use of the reform in statewide elections.
called instant runoff and backed by the national Center for Voting
and Democracy, is simple-- instead of voting for only one candidate,
voters will be able to rank their choices from first to last. If no
candidate receives a majority of the vote, the candidate with the
least votes will be dropped from the vote count. The second choice
candidate of all those voting for the losing candidate will then
receive those votes. If this does not create a winner, the process
is repeated. The third choice of voters whose first and second
choices have been eliminated are applied to remaining candidates,
and so on, until a winner with the majority of the vote emerges.
Such a reform is significant for the city races it will effect in
San Francisco where actual runoffs are often held between the top
two vote-getters. The reform will save the expense of running a
whole new election and avoid the low turnouts endemic in many runoff
But at the state and national level where no runoffs are
usually held at all, instant runoff would be a radical change, since
it would assure for the first time that winning candidates actually
had more support than their opponents, rather than allowing a
candidate to squeak into office because opponents divide the
alternative vote. We've had three Presidential elections where the
winning candidate did not receive a majority of the vote with Bush
Jr. of course not even receiving the plurality of votes in 2000.
For progressives, instant runoff systems would encourage unity
rather than division around progressive primary and third party
general election candidates. Vote totals for third party candidates
would increase dramatically. Pragmatic voters could happily vote
third party, knowing the "message" would be conveyed by their first
choice of candidate, but electoral expediency would be guaranteed
based on their second choice of candidate. And with higher voting
totals for such third parties, their candidates will gain the
credibility to actually push Democrats to third place in some races
and even win office based on the second choice decisions of those
more moderate Democratic voters.
One thing instant runoff voting
will do is force the main candidates to treat third party candidates
with more respect, since they will need the tacit alliances to
encourage their voters to support them as their second choice. In
fact, if a strong race by a third party candidate encourages higher
turnout, a friendly allied candidate could even benefit from their
presence in the race, since the increased turnout could translate
into higher vote totals as a second choice by these new voters.
can instant runoff be translated from city races in San Francisco to
national elections? There is nothing in the US constitution
preventing its use and new technology is making it increasingly easy
to set up ballots using the system. If Nader and other spoiler
candidacies on both the left and right have sent any message, it's
been in convincing a number of mainstream politicians that our
present electoral system is broken.
In Alaska, a statewide
referendum will be held on the fall ballot to implement instant
runoff voting for certain state races, largely supported by
Republican activists who feel Democrats have snuck into office based
on a divided conservative opposition. Conversely, in New Mexico
where Green candidacies have helped elect Republicans to the
governorship and Congress, Democrats have supported a constitutional
amendment for instant runoff voting. Largely in response to the
success of the Vermont Progressive Party, the organization of the
only progressive independent in Congress Bernie Sanders, the
Democratic governor Howard Dean has been supportive of instant
runoff as well. U.S. Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-Illinois) has
introduced legislation today creating incentives for states to adopt
instant runoff voting for allocating electoral votes in their state.
So the momentum for change is there.
In many ways, the greatest
tragedy of the Nader campaign was that during the month after the
2000 election, when people were obsessing about hanging chads, Nader
could have been barnstorming across the state and the nation
advocating instant runoff voting as a solution that would have
avoided the whole debacle in the first place. That was a golden
opportunity missed to educate the public about the benefits of an
instant runoff system.
But state by state organizing is
accelerating and if the victories in San Francisco and Vermont are
any indication, instant runoff is a reform that is becoming a top
choice of activists and voters.
Check out http://www.fairvote.com/irv/
for more information on instant runoff
voting from the Center for Voting and Democracy.
Nathan Newman is a union
lawyer, a longtime community activist, a National Vice President of
the National Lawyers Guild and author of the forthcoming book NET
LOSS on Internet policy and economic inequality. Email [email protected] or see http://www.nathannewman.org.