REVITALIZING THE CREAKING EDIFICE OF U.S. DEMOCRACY : Reforms Largely Missed the United States By Dr. Benjamin Reilly

From, 1/24/01

The extraordinary nature of the 2000 presidential election exposed a number of weaknesses in the U.S. electoral system: from the partisan structure of electoral administration and antiquated voting machinery, all the way to the constitutional provisions of the Electoral College. But possibly the most significant long-term effect of George W. Bush's minority victory over Al Gore -- made possible, in part, by "spoilers" such as Ralph Nader taking some 3 percent of the potential Democrat vote in key states -- will be on the case for reform of the plurality or "first-past-the-post" U.S. electoral system. In particular, the 2000 election results have focused attention on possible reforms that would ensure majority victors and negate the problem of spoilers by enabling voters to express their degree of preference between all candidates. Such a system -- "instant runoff voting" (IRV) -- has been used for many years in countries such as Australia (where it is called "preferential voting") and Ireland ("alternative voting"), and is increasingly being adopted in other democracies as well. It appears to be, in short, an idea whose time has come.

The key appeal of IRV is that it requires an absolute majority of support --that is, more than 50 percent -- for victory. It is simply not possible to get elected as a candidate if opposed by the majority. By enabling voters to express their preferences among candidates, rather than just their first choice, the system mitigates the effects of "vote-splitting" that proved such a problem at recent U.S. elections with the rise of minor parties like Nader's Green Party. IRV also enables aligned candidates to engage in cooperative behavior, so that distinct but related interests can be aggregated.

Under IRV, any candidate achieving an absolute majority of first-choice votes is immediately elected. However, if no candidate has over 50 percent of the first preferences, the lowest-ranking candidate is eliminated and his or her ballots are then counted for the candidate as listed next on each ballot. This process continues until a majority winner emerges. (For more information on how IRV works, please see John Anderson's article).

Because of the potential impact of these lower-order preferences IRV presents candidates with a strong incentive to try to attract as many secondary preferences as possible from other candidates. It also means that supporters of candidates with a small but potentially crucial vote share (such as Nader) can vote for these candidates without "splitting" votes from related major parties like the Democrats, as these votes are likely to come back to the major party via the voter's second preference votes (this is one reason for Nader's endorsement of the IRV system). In sum, IRV aggregates common interests while ensuring a majority victor--two crucial elements that are lacking in the current U.S. system.

Although invented by an American, Professor W.J. Ware of Harvard College, in 1873, for most of this century IRV has been used overseas--  typically in countries that had a strong cultural and political similarity with the United States. In Australia, for example, the U.S. Constitutional model served as a guiding light for reformers, and IRV was part of a package of progressive democratic innovations seen as being at the cutting edge of democratic best-practice when Australia became an independent federation 100 years ago. Several Canadian provinces also used IRV for their provincial elections earlier this century in Alberta, Manitoba and British Columbia. Around the same time, IRV was adopted for presidential elections and by-elections in Ireland. And in Britain, there have been ongoing attempts by progressive forces to introduce IRV throughout the twentieth century-- culminating recently in a government inquiry recommending the adoption of a form of IRV for parliamentary elections. Last year, the first elections for the new mayor of London were held under a form of IRV, resulting in the victory of a popular independent candidate.

These cases post-dated the move to electoral democracy in the United States by about 100 years. Although invented by an American, IRV was adopted in foreign countries as part of a series of grand democratic experiments that drew inspiration from the shining example of the U.S. itself. However, while other countries were making these electoral advances inspired by American ideas, the reform movement largely missed the U.S. itself. Indeed, in this one area of electoral innovation, the eighteenth century heritage of the U.S. political institutions shows through, as the practical advances of democratic elections-- including the abolition of property qualifications for voting, the introduction of mass suffrage, secret ballots, proportional representation and the like -- all took place in the nineteenth century, by which time the U.S. had been operating as a functioning (if limited) democracy for over 100 years. While most of these reforms were enacted in the United States, IRV and other forms of choice voting were not.

In recent years, IRV has been adopted in "divided societies" like Fiji and Bosnia with the aim of introducing some incentives for compromise into the political processes of these nations. The use of IRV as a mechanism for conflict management hinges on its propensity to encourage cross-partisan cooperation and centrist policies. Under IRV, candidates who wish to maximize their electoral prospects must attract the second preference votes from voters who will use their first choice elsewhere. To attract such support, candidates need to move to the center on policy issues to attract floating voters, or to accommodate "fringe" issues into their broader policy package. In this way, electoral incentives can promote policy concessions: as a small numbers of votes can make the difference between victory and defeat for a major candidate, the interests of minorities are given greater weight.

There is a long history of both these types of behavior in Australian elections, where IRV has facilitated coalition arrangements between like-minded parties, making elections a centrist contest for the middle ground, while simultaneously encouraging major parties to incorporate strong minority interests (for example, green issues) into their policies. In fact, IRV in Australia has been accurately described as a system for choosing "the least unpopular candidate" and rejecting extremism of any ideology, presenting the major parties with strong incentives to keep their focus on the middle ground at all times. In contrast to the U.S. experience, victories achieved by splitting a more popular opponent's voter base are rare, as aggregating rather than dividing interests is usually a more reliable strategy for electoral success. In addition, "preference swapping" -- the use of negotiations between major and minor parties for reciprocal second-preference support-- has become a well-stablished practice of Australian politics. This has encouraged the development of "arenas of bargaining" across party lines-- with important mediating influence on the political process and, over time, on the wider political culture.

Would the introduction of IRV in the United States also mirror the Australian experience of moderating political rhetoric and promoting coalition? It is notable that, despite the pervasive influence of U.S. practices and a culture of highly adversarial political rhetoric, "attack advertising" has never been a feature of Australian politics. One reason may be that the possibility of gaining secondary preference votes means that highly aggressive advertising is ultimately self-defeating. Also, it is likely that a change to IRV would produce similar incentives for coalition and cooperation across party lines when campaigning. But the clearest effect of introducing IRV in America would be the majority victory provision, especially at a time when increasing numbers of candidates means an increasing number of minority victories under plurality rules-- even at the level of the presidency.

A final issue is the level of complexity of IRV compared to one-shot systems like the current plurality model. While IRV certainly asks more of voters-- they get to rank-order all candidates standing, or as many as they choose-- there is little evidence that this results in a greater number of invalid ballots. In fact, the invalid ballot rate in Australia and Ireland is on par with the U.S., at about 3 percent of all votes. IRV is, however, difficult to run with the antiquated hole-punch voting machines made infamous by the last presidential election. Like all mass elections, it also works much better if administered by an independent, non-partisan electoral commission.

There is a strong link between a non-partisan electoral administration, the updating of voting machines and electoral equipment, and reform of the electoral system. In fact, there is a strong case that the primitive voting machines used in the U.S. (but long abandoned in comparable Western democracies) has effectively retarded the options of updating the electoral system away from a crude first-past-the-post choice. But with a jump to electronic voting, this could be surmounted relatively easily. The reform of electoral administration and the reform of the electoral system should be seen as complementary processes necessary to revitalize the once-inspirational -- but now creaking -- edifice of U.S. democracy.

Dr. Benjamin Reilly is a Research Fellow at the National Centre for Development Studies, Australian National University.