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Making Second-Place Votes Count
By Melissa August, Harriet Barovick, Victoria Rainert, Heather Won Tesoriero, Rebecca Winters
April 15, 2002

Ralph Nader still hasn't lived down the charge that his third-party candidacy in 2000 swung the election to George W. Bush. It's the perennial problem for third-party candidates: too often they serve merely as spoilers, siphoning votes from candidates their supporters might otherwise back. But a little-noticed proposition approved last month by San Francisco voters offers a glimpse of how democracy may look in the future. Instead of casting their ballots for just one candidate, San Franciscans will now rank the candidates in most local races according to their first, second and third choices. If no candidate gets more than 50%, the last-place finisher is dropped, and his or her second-place votes are allocated among the remaining candidates. The process is repeated until one candidate eventually reaches a majority.

The system, known as instant-runoff voting, has also been endorsed by most communities in Vermont. In Utah, where 40 candidates are vying for three congressional seats, the Republican Party decided to use instant runoffs at its May 11 convention to nominate candidates for the state's G.O.P. primary. And in heavily Republican Alaska--where Democratic Governor Tony Knowles was elected in 1994 by a mere 536 votes in a four-way race--voters will decide in August whether to adopt the instant-runoff system for nearly all its state offices.

Third parties support instant-runoff voting because they believe it will dispel the notion that a vote for their candidates is wasted. "It would make voters feel better about themselves, make the election more meaningful, draw more voters to the polls," says John Anderson, the 1980 third-party candidate for President. Other reformers argue that it is a truer expression of voter will than runoff elections, which are costly and typically attract a much smaller voter turnout. San Francisco approved the change after last year's runoff for city attorney drew an abysmally low 16.6% of registered voters. And as political races grow more crowded and fringe candidates proliferate, instant runoffs can encourage candidates to appeal to as wide a constituency as possible.

The system is being tried only in local elections for now. But if it works, it could spread to national contests--even someday, perhaps, to the presidential election. "I'm in favor of trying it," says Nader. "But nobody knows whether it will really work."

How We Vote Now


No matter how large the field, you vote for your favorite


1. RANK EACH CANDIDATE Voters list their preferences from first to last

2. TRANSFER VOTES If no one tops 50%, the two highest vote getters divide the second-place votes

3. MAJORITY WINS The process is repeated until one candidate tops 50%; no runoff is necessary

By Karen Tumulty

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Copyright 2002 The Center for Voting and Democracy
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