Independents Roil Vote

By Paul Fidalgo and Rob Richie
Published July 17th 2007 in Hartford Courant
There's one certain outcome from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's announcement that he has left the Republican Party to become an independent: The concept of "spoiler" presidential candidates will be inescapable for the coming year.

Given many voters' frustration with the poisonous partisan atmosphere inside the Beltway, a well-funded independent with a track record of accomplishment should be taken seriously. A recent Rasmussen poll found as many as 39 percent would consider voting for Bloomberg. He already polls 23 percent in New Jersey.

Clearly Bloomberg could win enough support to have a major impact, sparking electoral consternation once he begins to "siphon" support from major party candidates or - gasp - looks ready to win states and their electoral votes.

The fun doesn't end there. Ralph Nader is talking about another run at the presidency, surely thrilling those Democrats who despair at his impact in 2000. Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran in favor of pulling the troops from Iraq, hints that his independence in Congress may extend to a White House run.

Looming also are the bipartisan efforts of Unity `08, along with new candidacies from the Greens and Libertarians. Might all these potential spoilers-in-chief combine into one giant gestalt uber-candidate and destroy the country with its horrific Electoral Disruptor Ray? Should we all just hide under the covers?

Take what the Electoral College could produce. If an independent won a couple of states in a politically even year, it would send the election into the House of Representatives, that bastion of calm, collected reasoning, where each state's delegation - that's right, delegation - would cast one vote for president. Texas would have as many votes as Wyoming: one each. States with an even split of Republicans and Democrats might have to resort to rock-paper-scissors. Weirder still, if no candidate won 26 delegations, then whomever the Senate picked for vice president would become president until the House made up its mind.

We may also have a popular-vote loser in the White House again. That likely would have happened in 1992 if Ross Perot's vote had risen nationally from 19 percent to 34 percent, with Perot cruising to an Electoral College majority, despite trailing Bill Clinton in popular votes. Or we might have the winner of the popular vote finish second in the Electoral College, but win in the House. Or the popular vote's third-place finisher could win in electoral votes, but the House elects the candidate who came in second.

But rather than hide under covers, let's take action. Our fears of Electoral College deadlocks, losers-as-winners and spoiled elections are grounded in laws that fail to accommodate voters having more than two choices - yet can be changed by mere statute in state legislatures.

If enough states were to join Maryland in signing on to the National Popular Vote compact, for example, we could be sure that the person who takes office actually won the most votes. Under the popular-vote compact, states that join agree to give all their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote nationally, regardless of the vote in their state. The plan could still be enacted for next year if states representing a majority of electoral votes took action. Even if not, 2008 promises to be the last national election that uses the Electoral College as anything more than a formality.

Increasingly popular in cities, instant runoff voting represents another idea whose time has come. If implemented, we would have a far better chance of electing someone backed by a true majority of voters. The mere presence of third parties and independents need not "spoil" anything, as voters could indicate backup choices in case there is no initial majority winner and their first choice fails to make the cut. Naderites, Bloombergophiles, and Leave-Us-Alone Libertarians could vote with a free heart.

So as would-be insurgent candidates become you-best-start-taking-me-seriously candidates, and as we all quake in terror at the prospect of Congress picking our president or another spoiler-in-chief, keep in mind that we have the power to instill sanity and equality into a potential electoral circus.

Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote in Takoma Park, Md. Paul Fidalgo is its communications director.