THE REAL SPOILER:
In These Times
Rob Richie and Steven Hill
Nov. 10-17,2000 http://www.inthesetimes.com/web2501/richie2501.html
The equivocal showing of Green Party presidential
candidate Ralph Nader--falling far short of the 5 percent threshold
for federal funds and winning enough votes in Florida to send the
election into turmoil--poses hard questions about a post-election
strategy for a progressive electoral movement, particularly with
Nader hinting at more spoilers to come from a nascent Green Party
that he promises to keep building.
On the positive side, Nader was on the ballot in
45 states, raised more than $6 million, drew national attention to
the progressive critique of the Clinton-Gore administration and
inspired tens of thousands of enthusiasts in rallies in cities
across the country. But ultimately, under the pressures of the
spoiler dilemma posed by our "winner-take-all" system, Nader's
support drained away by Election Day. The Washington Post estimated
that more than 5 million would-be Nader supporters voted for a major
party candidate after wrestling with the spoiler dilemma.
In reflecting on the Nader campaign, it could not
be more obvious that there is one overriding obstacle to third-party
candidacies: our "winner-take-all" voting practices that preserve
the two-party political system. Voting system reform in the form of
proportional representation for legislative elections and instant
runoff voting for executive elections must be a cornerstone of the
necessary movement to restore electoral democracy.
Given progressives' frustration with the
rightward tilt of Clinton-Gore, the very debate about Nader's
candidacy revealed a serious flaw in our antiquated voting
practices: voting for your favorite candidate can lead to the
election of your least favorite candidate.
Fortunately Australia, England and Ireland have
implemented a simple solution: instant runoff voting (IRV). These
nations share our tradition of electing candidates by
plurality--where the top vote-getter wins, even with less than a
majority--but now use IRV for most important elections. Mary
Robinson was elected president of Ireland by IRV, and Labor Party
maverick "Red Ken" Livingstone was elected mayor of London. The
Australian legislature has been elected by IRV for decades.
Here's how IRV works: At the polls, voters select
their favorite candidate, but also indicate on the same ballot their
second "runoff" choice and subsequent runoff choices. If a candidate
receives a majority of first choices, the election is over. If not,
the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and in the runoff
round each ballot counts for the top-ranked candidate still in the
race. Rounds of counting continue until there is a majority winner.
It's like a runoff election, but without needing voters to return to
Imagine this year's presidential race with IRV:
In July, Nader surged to nearly 10 percent in national polls. He
drew interest from the United Auto Workers, Teamsters and leading
environmental organizations. Recognizing the spoiler problem,
however, they and many progressive constituencies grudgingly
endorsed Gore. But with IRV, Nader would have been freed from the
spoiler tag, and could have mobilized a progressive constituency and
even gained access to the presidential debates. Progressives in
Florida and elsewhere could have ranked Nader as their first choice
and Gore as their "lesser evil" runoff choice. Instead of waking up
on November 8 with an electoral hangover, they might have discovered
that their runoff choice had boosted Gore to victory -- but with a
caveat that said: "Handle with care. Watch your step on trade,
political reform and environmental policies."
The increased support for Nader and attention to
progressive issues could have shifted the political center and
helped Democrats win those few extra seats necessary to retake
Congress. Rather than fracture a potential majority vote for one
party, IRV could have helped forge that majority through mobilizing
and informing new voters. The energies of young activists, some of
whose belief in electoral politics no doubt has been shaken by
Nader's weak showing, would have been hugely rewarded.
Once passions cool off after this presidential
election, progressive Democrats and Green Party activists need to
think seriously about forging alliances to usher in electoral
reform. In all 50 states, IRV could be implemented right now for all
federal elections, including the presidential race, as well as state
and local elections, without changing a single federal law or the
Constitution. Already, IRV is gaining support in various states,
particularly when it solves a problem for a major party --as in New
Mexico, where the Greens have siphoned votes from the Democrats.
Advocates in Alaska--including leading Republicans--have turned in
the requisite signatures to place IRV on the 2002 statewide ballot.
Vermont also holds promise, with an impressive coalition supporting
IRV for statewide elections. And there are a growing number of
opportunities for city and state campaigns for IRV. In other words,
progressive Democrats and Green Party activists should be exploring
ways to work together to enact voting system reform.
But to gain a real foothold in power, IRV is not
enough. Fair representation demands scrapping "winner-take-all"
rules in legislative races in favor of proportional representation,
as used in most established democracies. With proportional
representation, a political party winning 10 percent of the popular
vote wins 10 percent of the legislative seats--instead of nothing.
Representing more of us would break open political monopolies and
give political and racial minorities realistic chances to win all
across the country. With proportional representation, the fight for
control of the House of Representatives this year would have been a
national election, rather than the piecemeal, money-driven campaign
that took place in 20 or 30 swing districts. Other political
reforms, notably public financing of elections and fair
ballot-access laws, are of critical importance to making democracy
work. But these other reforms cannot address the spoiler dilemma,
and they can't change the fact that winner-take-all elections shuts
out political and racial minorities since representation is limited
to those candidates and parties able to portray themselves as being
all things to approximately half the voters. Only voting system
reform will fundamentally change the playing field.
The power of IRV and proportional representation
have dawned on many Nader backers, particularly younger activists
and Greens who could be the backbone of a progressive electoral
movement. Nader himself backs IRV and proportional representation,
but seems ambivalent about their fundamental importance to
multiparty democracy. Bewilderingly, he continues to tout a "None of
The Above" voting option, which does little to build a multiparty
system. That raises crucial questions: Will a Nader-led electoral
movement ignore the real barriers presented by "winner take all"? Or
will it use its modest clout and resources to work for multiparty
democracy founded on the bedrock of proportional representation for
legislative elections and instant runoff voting for executive
The Nader candidacy showed a glimpse of the power
of a lasting multiparty politics. But its limitations illuminate the
critical need to reform "winner take all" elections. The recent
election results clarify, once and for all, the direction a
progressive electoral movement must take. Let's start the legwork
necessary to liberate voters from a choice between "spoilers" and
"lesser evils." It's time to change the voting system that spoils
the game for all of us.
Steven Hill and Rob Richie of the Center for
Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org) are co-authors of Reflecting
All of Us (Beacon Press).