Second Place Can Win

Published August 16th 2004 in Bangor Daily News

Democrats accuse Republicans of helping Ralph Nader's presidential campaign drain votes from John Kerry. Mr. Nader accuses Democrats of trying to keep him off the ballot in states where the election is close. With the outcome of the 2000 race on the minds of campaign officials, the accusations will grow louder as the election gets nearer, and the voting public will be forced into choices it shouldn't have to make.

Instant-runoff voting ends this argument, adds a more positive tone to the campaign, provides a majority vote to the eventual winner and allows third parties to join in the race without being seen as spoilers. If Mr. Nader wanted to add to the legacy of good-government changes he has led in his long career, this is the most important one his campaign could offer and the one Democrats should offer in exchange for liberal backing this time.

This voting method lets voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate wins a majority vote, the one with the lowest first-choice total is eliminated, and the vote is recounted immediately. The use of computer technology makes this kind of voting much more possible. The Maine Legislature last spring passed a bill to study the issue, with a report due in January.

The Nader campaign needn't wait that long. It can trade the Democrats' desire to get their candidate out of the race for the promise from Sen. Kerry that he would enthusiastically back legislation on instant runoff voting. Short term, that removes some of the Nader campaign's influence; long-term, it could mean that third parties would be welcomed into races and their voters courted by the two major parties, greatly increasing the voters' influence.

That would make for a more positive campaign - one candidate couldn't attack another and expect to win the second candidate's votes. It would attract more people to vote because they could vote in favor of their favorite candidate rather than against their least favorite, and they could do

it without resentment from the major party campaigns. Third parties are a regular feature of political life in the United States; forcing their supporters to become election spoilers when the alternative of instant runoffs exists works against the best interests of an elected government.

Admittedly, the voting systems in many states have a hard enough time keeping track of only one set of votes; multiple sets would challenge both it and require voters to be clear on their ballots. Federal support would be needed for states to change their voting equipment - and improve it: imagine multiple hanging chads. But inadequate equipment is not a reason to hold back on an idea that encourages participation in democracy.

Instant runoff voting would build confidence in the election process, force candidates to run more positive campaigns and give people more reasons to vote. For giving up 2 or 3 percent of the vote this time, that's not a bad trade-off.