* board officer

A call for more democracy

By John B. Anderson
Published September 13th 2004 in The News-Sentinel

The Republican convention was the latest demonstration of modern American politics' triumph of form over substance. With the possible exception of Sen. Zell Miller's angry keynote, consultants almost certainly tested nearly every significant phrase with focus groups among swing voters in this year's battleground states. I saw more straight talk in 15 minutes of the Aug. 31 debate among third-party presidential candidates than in all the Republicans' prime-time hours.

That reality makes me an unrepentant supporter of multi-party democracy in America. As the world's major superpower we have a special obligation to debate fully our policy choices - whether it be war in the Middle East, global warming, immigration or free trade. But we fall far short due to tactical calculations by major candidates striving to be all things to half the people.

Take the issue of our dependence on foreign oil. In my 1980 presidential campaign, I proposed combining a 50-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax with a 50 percent reduction in payroll taxes as a new approach to building a conservation ethic. The years since have ratified the merits of my position, but the major parties still fear raising it. Election after election we avoid debate - and thus choices - about many such reasonable proposals.

Some try to challenge the behemoth of the Republican-Democrat duopoly. Ross Perot won nearly a fifth of the national vote in 1992, and Ralph Nader's campaign shook the Democratic Party in 2000. But I have long since conceded that my 1980 advice to "vote your conscience, not your fears of failure" is unconvincing to most for one simple reason: they don't want to forfeit choosing between the candidates with a perceived chance to win.

Consider Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, whose popular support and insurgent message suggested a potential independent bid. Like John McCain in 2000, however, Dean did not challenge the duopoly in part because, as he says of Ralph Nader's campaign, "your best teacher is your last mistake" - Nader's mistake being not accepting that his candidacy elected George Bush without majority support.

Reasonable advice, perhaps, but far from Election 2000's only lesson. Democrats' mistake has been their refusal to replace the plurality voting system that makes Nader a spoiler and has resulted in 15 winners in the last 43 presidential elections receiving less than a majority of votes.

Republicans also have failed to act despite their own fury about Ross Perot and the presence of Libertarian Michael Badnarik on 50 presidential ballots this year. They should remember that the only predictable impact of unfair electoral rules is their unfairness to somebody.

I call on the major parties to pass state laws to implement instant runoff voting in order to preserve majority rule and avoid the hypocrisy of criticizing "spoilers" without changing the rules that allow them.

Instant runoff voting is a tested means to assure that a state's electoral votes go to a majority winner. Voters rank order their choices rather than vote for only one. If no candidate wins a majority of first choices, the weak candidates are eliminated, and in the runoff round everyone's ballot counts for whichever of the top two candidates is ranked higher. Rather than spoil majorities, candidates like Perot and Nader can actually boost support for the major party candidate closest to them.

Invented by an American in 1870, instant runoff voting elected Mary Robinson as the first woman president of Ireland, and this year the Australian Parliament will be elected by instant runoff voting as it has for 80 years. Now that modern technology can count instant runoff voting ballots efficiently, it has been adopted by voter initiative in California cities like San Francisco.

Gov. Dean came to support instant runoff voting after more than 50 town meetings in Vermont backed it for gubernatorial elections.

In addition to better assuring majority rule, instant runoff voting can inspire greater participation by people mobilized by independent candidates able to add more substance to campaigns and televised debates. It can discourage ad hominem negative attacks because candidates gain by being the second choice of supporters of other candidates.

The "last mistake" of the 2000 election should have been the best teacher for enacting instant runoff voting. The epithet of "spoiler" that maintains a duopoly of political power and stranglehold on debate would become obsolete and irrelevant. More voices and new choices could contribute a new dynamism to the political process, replacing its sclerotic condition today.


John B. Anderson was a candidate for president in1980. He is chairman of the Center for Voting and Democracy, www.fairvote.org. Readers may write to him at: The Center for Voting & Democracy, 6930 Carroll Avenue, Suite 610, Takoma Park, Md. 20912.

This essay is available to Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service subscribers. Knight Ridder/Tribune did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of Knight Ridder/Tribune or its editors.