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New IRV Publications
October 2000

Several recent commentaries on instant runoff voting:


Time to Celebrate Independents' Day: Minnesota Race to Replace Vento May Provide Another Surprise to the Major Parties
Roll Call, Oct. 23, 2000
By Eric Olson
Deputy director of the Center for Voting and Democracy

When Minnesota Rep. Bruce Vento (D) announced his retirement earlier this year, the chances of a Republican victory in the race for his traditionally Democratic House seat seemed as unlikely as a mild Minnesota winter. With a well-funded, well-regarded nominee, Democrats would seem poised to coast to victory in a district Bill Clinton won by 28% in 1996.

The fact that the race is instead a wild card has national implications about how we should adjust our system to reflect the growing presence of third party candidates in our federal elections. The state that brought us Jesse Ventura may just have another surprise up its sleeve -- and provides an early warning to the major parties about changes in store for our political system.

Ventura's Independence Party has nominated Tom Foley. Of the 4th district candidates, Foley has the most experience, having served two decades as an elected and appointed official, and enjoys high name recognition from his candidacies in Democratic statewide primaries in 1996 and 1998. He retains many close ties to his old party's constituencies and recently won the endorsement of former Senator Eugene McCarthy (I-Minn.).

An August poll found that no candidate was drawing more than 27 percent support, and Foley and the major-party candidates were within single-digit range of one another. It is conceivable that in November, voters could split their votes by roughly thirds - 34 percent, 33 percent, 32 percent, say. The winning candidate would not enjoy a mandate, and as many as 66 percent of voters -? a clear majority -? theoretically could strongly oppose the winner.

Another scenario is that "spoiler" fears will drive voters away from Foley, as so often happens to third party candidates. Creating disincentives to support one's favorite candidate runs counter to the democratic ideal and helps lower voter turnout. It also does not prevent "spoiling." Even if Foley loses, his candidacy could tip the election, just as relatively strong Green Party challenges almost certainly cost House Democrats special-election victories in New Mexico in 1997 and 1998, and a Libertarian Senate candidate hurt Nevada Republican John Ensign's chances in 1998.

Allowing candidates supported by a minority of voters to trump majority views is, quite simply, undemocratic. As more minor parties and Independents run for office, our plurality voting system ensures that the multi-candidate election becomes more like a lottery than a coherent democracy where majorities elect Representatives.

Some may wish third parties would just go away, but they shouldn't count on it. More voters than ever are declining to register as either Republicans or Democrats, and polls consistently show most Americans would like to see more candidates from outside the two parties. A trend of significance for the future is that the younger people are, the more they are interested in Independents. John Naisbitt argued in his book "Megatrends" that we are becoming a multiple-option society: for voters in Minnesota's 4th congressional district, the future is now.

The preference for Independents is not just limited to Minnesota. Glimpses of that future are visible across the country. Prominent Independent politicians abound from Ventura to former presidential candidate Ross Perot to Vermont Rep. Bernie Sanders, as well as former Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker and Maine Gov. Angus King.

At a national level, more than three-fourths of states were won by pluralities in presidential elections in 1992 and 1996 -- far more than in any other two presidential elections in the 20th century. This year, there has been much hand-wringing among Democrats over Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, while Pat Buchanan's potential to siphon off conservative votes from Bush is causing concern among Republicans.

In Senate races, there were more plurality wins in the 1990s than had occurred in more than half a century. One in seven U.S. House districts had a plurality election winner in the 1990s. This year the Libertarian Party is running candidates in more than half of congressional races, which may have an impact on Republicans in several races. The Greens have 56 candidates for House and Senate, including challenges to such vulnerable Democratic incumbents as Rush Holt (N.J.) and Mark Udall (Colo.), and a nominee in Debbie Stabenow's (D) open seat in Michigan.

In Indiana, Republican Rep. David McIntosh's open seat features a conservative ex-Republican primary candidate running as an Independent in a three?way race.

The five?way race for Rep. Rick Lazio's (R-N.Y.) seat could be a roll of the dice. The general election features three right-of-center candidates: Republican Joan Johnson, her former Republican primary opponent Robert Walsh on the Right to Life Party line and Conservative Party nominee Richard Thompson. Left of center, Stephen Israel won the Democratic nomination, but his main primary opponent, David Bishop, will appear as the nominee of three minor parties: Working Families, Green and Independence. Lazio's successor almost certainly will have fewer votes than the combined votes of his or her opponents.

So here's the problem. Voters want more choices, and, at least in some races, are starting to get them. But more choices also means a potential fracturing of the vote. As a result, more officials will win without clear majority support and more people who participate in elections will be without Representatives of their choice. It means that a handful of candidates who cut into the support of major parties can swing elections. It means that the "spoiler" conundrum will make many voters cast ballots against their favorite candidates.

There is, however, a fair, tested way to solve this dilemma. It's a simple system known as "instant runoff voting." Voters simply rank candidates in order of preference. In a three?candidate election, if a candidate receives a majority of first choice votes, that candidate is elected. If no candidate receives a majority of these, however, the candidate with the fewest first choices is eliminated, and ballots cast for that candidate are counted for one of the remaining two candidates according to those ballots' second choices.

Instant runoff voting ensures a majority winner. It frees minor-party candidates from a spoiler role. It allows voters to express their true preferences, rather than voting against their fear of the worst candidates, and reduces the number of wasted votes. It also results in more consensus winners and cleaner campaigns, as candidates have an incentive to avoid excessive mud?slinging when they must compete for second choice support as well as their core support.

No constitutional changes are needed to implement instant runoff voting in federal elections. Congress could require states to implement this process with a simple statutory change, or states and localities could experiment with it on their own. Alaska, Vermont, and New Mexico are among the states most seriously considering its use for major elections. In heavily Republican Alaska, the GOP has made it a priority after losing gubernatorial elections for the last two decades -- largely due to splintering of the conservative vote. In Vermont, Gov. Howard Dean (D) and the two other major gubernatorial candidates support instant runoff voting. New Mexico's state Senate passed a bill for its use in state and Congressional elections.

In elections like the one in Minnesota's 4th district, where third and fourth candidates threaten to "spoil" the election, the outcomes this November might be contrary to most voters' wishes. Such skewed results are easily preventable, so it's time we update our democracy by examining and implementing instant runoff voting for a more representative future.


If Politics Got Real �
by Rob Richie and Steven Hill, October 16, 2000, The Nation

To Nader or not to Nader, that is the question. A debate over whether Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader is a savior or a spoiler has raged for months among progressives. Neither argument satisfies, however, because both are partly right. Votes for Nader instead of Al Gore in a close election really could elect George Bush, with negative consequences for women, minorities, workers and the environment. Yet without Nader, centrist Democrats could bury progressivism even deeper.

Given Nader's remarkable career and the potential of his campaign to build on new movements for fair trade, fair elections and fair wages, the very debate over his campaign reveals a serious flaw in our antiquated electoral rules: Voting for your favorite candidate can lead to the election of your least favorite candidate. Providing the means to express one's real views and insuring majority rule are basic requirements of democracy. But our current system badly fails these tests.

Fortunately, the British, Australians and Irish have a simple solution: instant runoff voting (IRV). They share our tradition of electing candidates by plurality--a system whereby voters have one vote, and the top vote-getter wins -- but they now also use IRV for most important elections. Mary Robinson was elected President of Ireland by IRV. Labor Party maverick Ken Livingstone was elected mayor of London. The Australian legislature has been elected by IRV for decades. States could implement IRV right now for all federal elections, including the presidential race, without changing federal law or the Constitution.

IRV simulates a series of runoff elections, but in a single round of voting that corrects the flaws of runoffs and plurality voting. At the polls, people vote for their favorite candidate, but they also indicate their second, "runoff," choice and subsequent choices. If a candidate receives a majority of first choices, the election is over. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and a runoff round of counting occurs. In this round your ballot counts for your top-ranked candidate still in the race. The eliminated candidate is no longer a "spoiler" because the votes of that candidate's supporters go to their runoff choice. Rounds of counting continue until there is a majority winner.

Imagine this year's presidential race with IRV. Nader supporters worried about George Bush could rank Nader first and Gore second. Suppose Bush won 45 percent of first choices in a key state, Gore 44 percent, Nader 9 percent and the rest 2 percent. Under current rules, Bush wins. But with IRV, after Nader loses in the instant runoff, his supporters would propel Gore above 50 percent and defeat Bush. Rather than contribute to Gore's defeat, Nader could help stop Bush, while delivering a message to Gore: Watch your step on trade, political reform and the environment.

Freed from the spoiler stigma, Nader could more easily gain access to the presidential debates, inform and mobilize a progressive constituency and win more votes. Higher turnout and increased attention to progressive issues could move the political center and help Democrats retake Capitol Hill. The Green Party could gain a real foothold. In other words, his campaign would be a win-win, rewarding the energy of young activists, whose belief in electoral politics would be put at risk by a weak Nader performance.

Surveying past elections, it's intriguing to consider what might have been. What would have happened with IRV in 1968, when the anti-Vietnam War movement was left without a champion in the general election and Richard Nixon narrowly edged out Hubert Humphrey? Might Jesse Jackson in 1996 have pursued his proposed independent candidacy, forcing Bill Clinton to justify his moves to the right? What might socialists Norman Thomas and Henry Wallace have achieved in the thirties and forties?

Of course, IRV isn't only for liberals. This year it could have encouraged John McCain to ride his Straight Talk Express over to the Reform Party, and in past years it could have boosted Ross Perot. IRV has no ideological bias, as has been proven by its shifting partisan impact in eight decades of parliamentary elections in Australia. Its virtue for all sides is that it doesn't punish those ready to challenge the status quo.

At the same time, IRV is proving a winning argument for both Democrats and Republicans when they are confronted with potential spoilers. Worried by the fact that strong Green candidacies have split the Democratic vote in two of the state's three House seats, prominent New Mexico Democrats are backing IRV, and the State Senate decided in 1999 to give voters a chance to enact IRV for all state and federal offices. In Alaska the Republican Party, also beset by split votes, has made a sweeping IRV bill for all state and federal offices its number-one legislative priority, and advocates have already collected enough signatures to place IRV on the statewide ballot in 2002.

Vermont may hold the most immediate promise. Boosted by public financing, a progressive third-party candidate is mounting a strong challenge in the governor's race, and an impressive coalition from across the spectrum supports IRV for statewide elections. Public financing and IRV are indeed well matched: With IRV, clean-money candidates could run from across the spectrum without inviting spoiler charges.

Cities are also good targets for IRV campaigns. A charter commission in Austin, Texas, has recommended replacing two-round runoffs with IRV. Voters in Santa Clara County, California, and Vancouver, Washington, recently approved ballot measures to make IRV an explicit option in their charters.

For all IRV's benefits, ours remains a majoritarian system, and minor-party candidates aren't likely to win office much more than under plurality rules. To achieve truly fair representation would require other reforms, such as campaign finance reform and proportional representation for electing legislators. But IRV is the best way to eliminate the spoiler dynamic that suppresses candidacies -- and the debate and participation they could generate. If progressives learn one lesson from campaign 2000, let it be that the next presidential campaign should be conducted under fairer rules. Real democracy needs a rainbow of choices, not the dull gray that results in one of the lowest voter turnouts in the democratic world.

Robert Richie and Steven Hill are executive director and western regional director, respectively, of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a Washington-based nonprofit organization (, and the authors of Reflecting All of Us (Beacon).


INSTANT RUNOFF VOTING: A New Way to Vote: Voting Doesn't Have To Be Either-Or
By Tom Wicker,

A number of Democrats who might like to vote for Ralph Nader for president on the Green ticket are hesitant or unwilling to do so because they fear their defection from the Democratic ticket might allow George W. Bush to be elected on the Republican line. Here in Vermont, some Democrats face the same problem in state politics -- they might prefer to vote for an independent candidate, Anthony Pollina, but they fear that their failure to vote for the re-election of Democratic Governor Howard Dean might result in victory for the Republican candidate, Ruth Dwyer.

This is an old American dilemma, resulting primarily from the nearly universal use of plurality, winner-take-all voting in U.S. elections. Suppose, for example, that either Al Gore or George Bush receives 46 percent of the vote next November, the other wins 39 percent, and Nader polls the other 15 percent (neglecting, for this hypothetical, all other candidates).

In the first place, the winner will be a minority president, as many American chief executives -- like Bill Clinton -- have been. In the second place, if that winner should be George Bush, Nader will be seen as a "spoiler" whose 15 percent probably cost Gore and the Democrats the presidential election -- even though 15 percent actually may underestimate vastly the number of people who preferred Nader to either major-party candidate.

Ross Perot was seen as just such a spoiler in 1992, after subtracting enough votes from George Bush the Elder to elect Clinton. Perot, George Wallace in 1968 and John Anderson in 1980, all started their third-party campaigns with strong poll showings -- but finished with relatively weak vote totals. That's because such candidacies, no matter how popular, are seen as inevitable losers -- and voters don't like to throw away their votes on losers.

Plurality voting is a strong reason why third parties and independent candidates so seldom win and why the two-party system is so entrenched in American politics. It explains why duly elected mayors, governors and presidents so often have to govern without an official, or at least a truly sympathetic, majority, and why so many Americans resent what they believe is the necessity to cast a "strategic" though insincere vote rather than one for a candidate they truly support.

The problems posed by plurality voting could be resolved, and far more democratic election results obtained, by a change -- unfortunately, one neither simple nor likely -- to a system of preference voting. In an explanatory acronym, this system is sometimes called IRV, for "instant runoff voting." Here's how it would work in November: Gore, Bush, Nader and Patrick Buchanan, the Reform candidate, all would be listed on the ballot. Instead of putting an "X" by his or her choice (whether strategic or sincere), a voter would put a "1" by his or her first choice, a "2" by the second, a "3" by the third, a "4" by the fourth (and so on, if other choices were available). When the ballots were counted, if a candidate had a majority of first choice votes, he (or someday she) would be elected. But if no one had a majority of first choice votes, the candidate with the fewest such votes would be eliminated.

In an immediate second count -- in effect, an instant runoff -- the votes that had been cast by supporters of the eliminated candidate would be redistributed to their designated second choices. If this gave someone a majority -- even a second- or third-place finisher in the first round -- that candidate would be elected. If not, again the candidate with the lowest total would be eliminated. Votes for that candidate then would be redistributed to his or her supporters' designated second choices. That would produce a winner with majority support, eliminate the idea of a "spoiler," make insincere strategic voting unnecessary, promote the chances of a third-party or independent (sure to be a loser in the usual plurality voting system), and give voters a wider range of choices. It would obviate the cost of the separate, runoff elections conducted in some constituencies in order to get a majority winner, as well as the drop-off in turnout such separate runoffs usually incur.

In North Carolina in 1950, for instance, Senator Frank P. Graham won the Democratic primary with the most votes ever cast for anyone in any election in the state's history. He did not win a majority, however, in a three-candidate race; in the run-off necessitated by state law, turn-out declined drastically, and Graham lost to the first round runner-up, Willis Smith (who was heavily backed by Jesse Helms, then a radio commentator, now the state's senior senator).

Turnout could not decline in IRV contests; and proponents believe IRV might even reduce negative campaigning. Theoretically, candidates eager to be the second or third choices of voters backing someone else would not wish to alienate those voters by attacking their preferred candidate, On the other hand, IRV might undermine the two-party system, an element of stability but also of the status quo in the American system. But enhancing the chances of some independents and third-parties, in some cases, would be useful.

IRV also might confuse voters. It would increase the complexity of vote-counting and the likelihood of cheating in that process. In many cases, it also would require constitutional or legal changes difficult to explain or effect. But it's not a radical or outlandish idea -- both the American Political Science Association and the American Psychological Association elect their officials by IRV.

The chief difficulty is the ingrained devotion of Americans both to plurality voting and the two-party system, which makes any variation from either seem radical or even subversive. The Republicans of 1860, with Abraham Lincoln as their candidate, were the last and only upstart party to win the presidency -- and at that in a four-party election. Even Theodore Roosevelt couldn't do it, in his "Bull Moose" campaign of 1912.

In the new millennium, election year 2000 is running true to form, with neither Nader nor Buchanan or any other two-party deviant to be included in those decisive televised debates between Bush and Gore, Republican and Democrat, mainstream versus mainstream. A detailed explanation of IRV and other forms of non-plurality voting will be available, however, in time for this year's elections -- though it's not likely to affect them. Behind the Ballot Box, by Douglas J. Amy, a political scientist at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, will be published by Praeger in October.

(Tom Wicker was a columnist for the New York Times for twenty-five years before retiring in 1991. He is the author of more than a dozen books including, One of Us: Richard Nixon and the American Dream.)


If a Swing State Cares, It's an Issue
By Michael Lind, New York Times, October 1, 2000

WASHINGTON -- In a nation with 100 million likely voters, the result of this year's presidential race may be decided by fewer than a million.

Those are the undecided voters in swing states with lots of votes in the Electoral College. Elementary math explains why both Al Gore and George W. Bush are paying much less attention to most of the South, New England and the Mountain West, as well as California, New York and Texas. These places are reliably Republican or Democratic, and there is not much point in contesting them.

So big swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Missouri and Florida have been the object of the candidates' messages, carefully tailored to local voters.

In some ways, Mr. Gore has proved more adept than Mr. Bush at aiming micro-messages at swing voters in swing states. The vice president's call for opening the strategic petroleum reserve and his attacks on Big Oil appeal to Midwestern voters worried about high heating bills this winter. His support for expanding Medicare to cover prescription drugs is intended to appeal to elderly voters in Florida, the one big Southern state in play.

Earlier, Mr. Gore went after another important electoral bloc in Florida, Cuban-Americans, by disagreeing with the Clinton administration in the Elian Gonzalez case. Though usually outspoken on the environment, Mr. Gore has been careful not to stress this theme too heavily when he is in the Rust Belt, where it is not popular with manufacturing workers. He has just as carefully avoided making an issue of gun control, which is unpopular with many Reagan Democrats in the Midwest.

While Mr. Bush is spending most of his time in swing states, too, he has not, like Mr. Gore, cobbled together an ad hoc platform that makes specific promises to specific swing voters. The one exception may be Latinos, whom Mr. Bush frequently addresses in Spanish. A number of big swing states have large Latino populations.

In obsessively courting undecided voters in a few places, the candidates are doing more than neglecting the interests and values of Americans who do not pay high heating bills. They are neglecting issues of concern to the nation as a whole.

The federal government spends far more on old people than on children, for example, but neither candidate will point that out, for fear of offending elderly swing voters. What should have been a great debate about the long-term reform of Social Security has lately been replaced by the wedge-issue politics of prescription drug policy.

In a close election, time spent on issues of concern to every American is time lost in addressing the particular interests of the minuscule number of Americans who will choose the next occupant of the White House. This is a bad way to elect the president, who should have support from a wide variety of regions, religions and ethnic groups.

Can anything be done, short of replacing the Electoral College with direct election of the president -- a virtually impossible reform that would require a constitutional amendment- Fortunately, it is possible to transform our presidential elections, while keeping the Electoral College and without amending the Constitution. All we have to do is change the way that the states allocate their electoral votes.

Today all but two states -- Nebraska, which has five electoral votes, and Maine, which has four -- give all of their electoral votes to the winner of the state's popular vote. If every state were to divide its electoral votes among the candidates on the breakdown of the popular vote, presidential politics would be reinvigorated.

For example, even if a majority of Californians and New Yorkers preferred the Democratic candidate, the division of their electoral votes would give a Republican candidate an incentive to make lots of visits to these states and to listen to voters' concerns there.

For the same reason, a Democratic presidential candidate, instead of writing off Texas and even vilifying it, as Vice President Gore has done, would court the states' substantial minority of Democrats and independents. A candidate who stressed a few themes of national importance might rack up more electoral votes nationwide than a rival who focused on a few important states.

Every state legislature has the power to switch from the winner-take-all system to a division of its electoral votes. Nebraska and Maine each give two electoral votes to the winner of the statewide popular vote, while allocating the remainder according to the winner of the popular vote within each congressional district.

Another method would be to assign electoral votes according to the proportions of the popular vote each candidate won.

Critics of such reforms point out that they would increase the possibility that no candidate would receive a majority of the electoral vote, especially in a three-way race in which no candidate received a majority of the popular vote. In that event, the election would be thrown into the House of Representatives, with each state delegation assigned a single vote. (Yes, our Constitution really is that weird.)

To avoid this crisis, states could adopt a different way of allocating electoral votes. On Election Day, voters would be asked to rank candidates in order of preference, marking their first, second and third choices. Then, when votes were counted, if the first choice didn't emerge in the top two, a second or third choice would get the vote.

This so-called instant-runoff system would make it extremely unlikely that any electoral votes would go to third-party candidates. Most third-party candidates, like John Anderson in 1980 and Ralph Nader today, have geographically broad but thin support. And candidates with regionally concentrated support, like George Wallace in 1968, have a greater chance of creating a constitutional crisis by piling up electoral votes under the present winner-take- all system than they would have under an instant-runoff system.

If states switched from the current system, then presidential candidates would begin hunting for electoral votes all over the country and paying attention to a greater variety of groups and interests. The state legislatures should get to work now, so that in 2004 or 2008 we can have a chance to elect a president of the United States, rather than a president of the swing states.

(Michael Lind, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is co-author of the forthcoming "The Radical Center." He is a founding advisory committee member of the Center for Voting and Democracy)


Recipe for School Board Confusion
Eric, Olson, Letter to the Editor
Washington Post Monday, October 2, 2000; Page A24

After all the energy spent revamping the District's school board structure, this fall's election under new rules could easily result in zero members of the new board receiving majority support from voters.

In both Districts 1 and 3, eight candidates vie for one seat, while seven compete in District 2. With three running for the key board president position, it's not hard to imagine more voters casting ballots for the two combined losing candidates than for the winner.

The elected caretakers of the District's schoolchildren should enjoy a mandate to run the schools--otherwise all the problems of finger-pointing, accountability and blame will continue to plague school governance. Each district could use a runoff election to narrow candidates to two top vote-getters, ensuring majority support in a choice between two. Better, elections should use the instant runoff method, by which voters rank candidates in order of preference.

ERIC C. OLSON Deputy Director Center for Voting and Democracy Takoma Park


The commentary below was circulated by the Progressive Media Project ([email protected]) and has appeared in such newspapers as the Detroit Free Press.

Open up our electoral process
John B. Anderson

In 1980, I ran for president as an independent after abandoning the Republican primaries. Even polling near 25 percent, I was labeled a spoiler. My candidacy was said to deprive voters of the clear choice between conservative Republican Ronald Reagan and Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter. Never mind that my platform clearly attracted many people uncomfortable with this choice.

So I sympathize with Green Party nominee Ralph Nader, Reform Party nominee Pat Buchanan, Libertarian Party nominee Harry Browne, Constitution Party nominee Howard Phillips and Natural Law Party nominee John Hagelin. They all have something to say, like them or not. But the Republicans and Democrats don't want you to hear them. That's why they won't let them in the debates, which start on Oct. 3 in Boston.

Having more candidates participate in at least one general election debate would strengthen our democracy. As indicated by Ross Perot's impact in 1992 and Jesse Ventura's prominent role in Minnesota's gubernatorial debates in 1998, more people would watch, more ideas would be discussed and, ultimately, more people would vote.

But the issue goes beyond the debate invitation. There is a fundamental problem with our electoral process. We should not accept a system where voting for your favorite candidate can contribute directly to the election of your least favorite.

Unlike in most democracies, here the candidate with the most votes wins all, even if opposed by a majority of voters. That makes third-party or independent candidates "spoilers" if they split a major party candidate's vote. It's this concern that drives the major parties to exclude other voices from the debates.

Fortunately, there's a solution, one already practiced in London, Ireland and Australia: instant runoff voting. This is a simple reform that any state could implement immediately for all federal elections, including the presidential race. There are significant efforts to enact instant runoff voting for federal elections in such states as Alaska, New Mexico and Vermont.

In instant runoff voting, people vote for their favorite candidate, but also can indicate subsequent choices by ranking their preferences as 1, 2, 3. If a candidate receives a majority of first choices, the election is over. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and a second round of counting occurs. In this round, your ballot counts for your top-ranked candidate still in the race. Rounds of counting continue until there is a majority winner.

With instant runoff voting, we would determine a true majority winner in one election and banish the spoiler concept. Voters would not have to calculate possible perverse consequences of voting for their favorite candidate. They could vote their hopes, not their fears.

Under this system, liberals who like Nader but worry about Bush could rank Nader first and Gore second. Similarly, some conservatives could rank Buchanan first and Bush second. Rather than contributing to Gore's or Bush's defeat, Nader and Buchanan instead could stimulate debate and mobilize new voters.

Our primitive voting system is this year's real spoiler. Instant runoff voting would give us a more participatory, vital democracy, where candidates could be judged on their merits and the will of the majority could prevail.

[John B. Anderson is the president of the Center for Voting and Democracy ( in Washington, D.C. He served in Congress from 1961 to 1981 and was an independent presidential candidate in 1980.


Two-party system gives us freedom from choice
By JOSHUA SAMUEL BROWN, Colorado Daily, September 28

Our electoral system is simple. We (the people) vote, and these votes go to a very select group of people called "the Electoral College." They count our votes, and then they elect the president. Usually they elect the president that we (the people) have voted for. This system came about so that we (the people) would have a kind of "buffer" against the mob rule of we (the people). The Electoral College is very smart. We (the people) are dumb. We need the Electoral College to protect us from ourselves. Otherwise, we might fall for the subliminable (sic) messages of some tyrant, voting them into office. Hooray for the Electoral College!

Our voting system is also simple. Every four years, we get to vote for one of two candidates. One of these two people will lose, and be forced into a life of self-effacing talk-show engagements, commercial endorsements, and lucrative speaking positions. The other becomes the most powerful man in the world, for the next four years at least. If we had only one choice, our country would be called a dictatorship. Dictatorships are bad. Luckily, we have two choices. We live in a democracy. Hooray for democracy.

Or so I thought, until this morning, when I had a startling realization.

I was having coffee at a local shop, when I overheard a customer complaining. It seems there were only two kinds of bagels left -- salt and cranberry walnut -- and the customer was becoming quite irate over her perceived lack of choice. I felt bad for the customer. There's something downright un-American about having to chose between two of anything that you don't like. But in America, that's precisely the dilemma that most voters have to face every four years. A choice between, as Gore Vidal put it, "Two products that nobody wants to buy."

Sure, there's no law that prevents a third-, fourth- or even no-party candidate from running. However, in a winner-take-all system like our own, even if they get a lot of votes throughout the nation, they still probably won't get even one "electoral vote." And it gets worse. With the electoral system, a race that's incredibly close in the popular vote can wind up being a landslide victory in the Electoral College. This gives the winner the illusion that they have "the mandate of the people," even if more people voted against them than for them.

But the worst thing about the current system is the situation that we're drawn into every election year, the ugly conundrum that we're in right now. An election between major party candidates who almost nobody (outside of the candidates' immediate families) really wants to be president. We can't vote for a third-party candidate, because with the current system that vote will be "wasted." In the end, we either don't vote, or vote for the candidate whom we dislike the least. In political circles, this is called "the dildo dilemma." It's forced sodomy with a twist: You can chose the color dildo that gets rammed up you. Hooray for freedom of choice -- bend over and vote!

Is there a voting system that will allow us to elect a government without having to grit our teeth? To find out, I called up the Center for Voting and Democracy, an information resource center that specializes in disseminating information about voting systems around the world. I spoke to Eric Olson, the center's deputy director.

"Eric, first off, is the current system really that bad?" I asked.

"Well Josh," he answered, "imagine if Americans were only given two choices of breakfast cereal. There'd be rioting in the streets."

"But is there another way?" I asked. "And, most importantly, an easy-to-understand voting method. Something that even a simple-minded satirist can understand?"

"Yes, there is," he said. "The Instant Runoff voting system (IRV). Point your browser to, and the Muppets will explain the system to you."

And explain they did (really! Go to the site). Basically, the IRV system works like this. Rather than voting for one candidate in any given election, we put a number next to each candidate's name to indicate how much (or little) we want them to win -- first choice, second, third, etc.

After the voting is done, the ballots are tallied, and, if there is no clear majority, the candidate who got the least amount of first-choice votes is eliminated. The losing candidate's votes are then distributed to each voter's next available choice. The votes are then re-tallied, and another candidate is eliminated, their votes being redistributed to whichever surviving candidate is indicated as least objectionable by the individual voters. In the end, one of the candidates winds up with a majority, and is declared the winner.

Ireland uses this system to choose the prime minister. London uses it to chose a mayor. Australians get to chose their entire Senate through instant-runoff voting. The beauty of this system is obvious. We are able to vote for our favorite candidates without having to worry that we're actually helping to elect our least favorite candidate, which is pretty much the way it works under the current U.S. system.

The IRV system also empowers the fastest-growing block of voters in America today -- the disgruntled voter -- free expression at the voting booth. By prioritizing the candidates, the candidate who wins knows exactly how many votes came from people who voted for them only with great reservation. In the end, we (still the people) get to choose a government that we want instead of having to grit our teeth and chose between the lesser of two dildos.

... "Evils," I mean.

Special Thanks to Eric Olson at The Center for Voting and Democracy (

Joshua Samuel Brown is a Boulder based writer and raconteur who has lived in Taipei, Beijing and Vermont. Direct all comments, complaints and job offers to [email protected]

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