the Majority Can Rule
By Ted Halstead and Michael
March 19, 2002
On March 5 voters in
San Francisco helped change American democracy. They gave their
approval to Proposition A, which calls for the adoption of new rules
for electing the mayor, city attorney, district attorney, Board of
Supervisors and other city officials.
The new system, Instant
Runoff Voting, may not sound revolutionary. But its widespread
adoption, not only at the city level but in state and federal
elections, has the potential to change American democracy
dramatically, and for the better.
Most elections in the United
States use the old-fashioned "winner take all" system, which greatly
inhibits voter choices. In winner-take-all elections, a vote for a
third party or independent candidate is usually a wasted vote.
Indeed, in most elections, by voting for a third-party candidate,
you only hurt the major-party candidate you would favor and help the
one you like least.
In recent years this problem has
plagued American politics. In 1992 Ross Perot probably drained
enough support from George H. W. Bush to permit Bill Clinton to win. In
2000 Ralph Nader probably siphoned off enough voters from Al Gore to
put George W. Bush in the White House. The same thing has happened
in many statewide elections. Another major problem with the
winner-take-all system is that in a race with three or more
candidates, a candidate opposed by most voters can nevertheless win
with just over a third of the vote.
Instant runoff voting would not
only remedy these problems by expressing voter preferences more
closely; it would offer the American people what a majority say they
want: more electoral choices. It operates on the same principle as a
conventional runoff, except that no second election weeks or months
later is required. In a race with three or more candidates, voters
rank them in order of preference: 1, 2, 3, and so on. The weakest
candidates are eliminated and the second-choice votes of those
eliminated are redistributed to the remaining candidates, until one
candidate achieves a clear majority of votes.
If such a system had
been in place in recent presidential elections, the elder Bush would
probably have beaten Clinton in 1992, but his son would likely have
lost to Gore in 2000. Under this system, third-party candidates and
independents would no longer be spoilers, and votes for them could
no longer be considered wasted votes.
Studies show that the major
reason voter turnout has declined is the lack of choices on the
ballot. This is particularly the case now that more Americans
identify themselves as "independents" than as either Democrats or
Republicans. The experience of other countries suggests that voter
turnout will rise as choices increase. And this, in turn, would lead
to more serious and credible candidates running as independents.
Changing our electoral system to Instant Runoff Voting could also
reduce the bitter polarization that tends to turn American elections
into civil wars. Under winner-take-all, it's in the interest of a
candidate to vilify all his or her opponents in the hope of eking
out a bare plurality, if not a slight majority. By contrast, in an
instant runoff system, candidates have a built-in incentive to
appeal to supporters of rival candidates rather than alienate them.
Their message must be: "I'd rather be your first choice, but if you
prefer one of my rivals, please mark me as your second choice."
Instant Runoff Voting thus has the potential to replace the politics
of polarization with a new politics of centrism and civility.
Instant Runoff Voting can be adopted to elect candidates for
everything from city council to Congress to the presidency. Already,
several bills to encourage such a system have been introduced in
Congress. As the voters of San Francisco have proved, the American
people don't have to wait for lawmakers in Washington to modernize
our electoral system. This is one revolution that can start at the
state and local level.
Even before San Francisco voted, other
cities in California and in Washington had changed their city
charters to permit instant runoff. And a number of states, including
California, Alaska, Hawaii, Maine and Vermont, are now debating its
use in state and federal elections.
For electoral reformers,
campaign finance and modernizing archaic vote-counting machinery
have been the major causes. But as important as these changes are,
they fail to address the basic problem of American politics today:
obsolete voting rules that frequently frustrate the intent of
American voters and drive many away by artificially discouraging new
parties and independent candidates.
The adoption of Instant Runoff
Voting for almost all offices, from the presidency to county clerk,
would be an important part of a peaceful revolution to modernize
Ted Halstead is president of
the New America Foundation, and Michael Lind is a senior fellow
there. They are co-authors of "The Radical Center: The Future of