Majority Rule: As Easy as 1-2-3

By Rob Richie and Steven Hill
October 29, 1997

 1997 has been a quiet election year, with only a handful of state and city races drawing national attention. But this gives us more opportunity to reflect upon lessons learned -- and a glaring one is about the antiquated way we count votes in an era of increasing political diversity.

In May, Republicans won a traditionally Democratic seat in a special U.S. House election in New Mexico. The winner took only 43% of the vote, but a Green Party candidate's 17% was more than enough to "spoil" the race for Democrats.

In September, taxpayers saved millions of dollars when Ruth Messenger barely avoided a run-off with Al Sharpton in New York City's mayoral race by slipping by the 40% threshold necessary to win a citywide primary -- never mind that 60% of primary voters still opposed Messenger.

In October, former Clinton administration official Jim Baca was elected mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico with a paltry 29% of votes in a large field of candidates.

Looking ahead to November 4th, New Jersey's Christie Whitman, one of only two women elected governor, is hearing footsteps from her Democratic challenger. A major factor is a Libertarian candidate who may win as much as 20% of Whitman's potential votes.

Looking to what many consider 1998's most important race, former Democratic Congressman Dan Hamburg has formed an exploratory committee for a likely run as a Green in the hotly-contested California governor's race -- one in which every vote for Hamburg will likely mean one less for the Democratic candidate.

The common denominator in these elections is that winners are winning without ajority because of participation of more than two candidates. "Majority rules" is a basic tenet of democracy, but American electoral laws often make a mockery of that principle.

The solution is surprisingly simple -- update our rules. In much of life, rules change quickly. In the last century, our society's rules have been revolutionized by the invention of automobiles, airplanes and computers. In football, soccer-style place kickers quickly have booted toe-kickers into oblivion because they are more accurate. But we still limp along with 18th-century electoral laws that are not designed for today's politics.

Our solution to "plurality rules" is to adopt the "instant run-off," or "1-2-3" voting. Australia uses this system for parliamentary elections, while on October 30th voters in the republic of Ireland will choose among five candidates seeking the presidency. In a plurality election, the Irish winner might have as few as 21% of votes. But the instant run-off allows voters to rank candidates 1,2, 3 and so on, and votes are counted so that a winner must have majority support.

In New Jersey, for example, a voter might rank the Libertarian candidate first and Republican Whitman second. After all first-choice votes are counted, any candidate with a majority of votes would win. But if no candidate has a majority -- as in most of the cases above -- the last-place candidate would be eliminated, and votes for that candidate would be redistributed to the second choices on each ballot. This ballot- count mirrors what would happen in a run-off election, as the only voters to change their votes would be those who had supported the defeated candidate.

In New Jersey, votes cast for the Libertarian this year probably would mostly transfer to Whitman. In the New Mexico congressional race, the votes for the Green candidate mostly would have transferred to the Democrat. Even if the transfer of votes did not change the results, it would demonstrate that the winner had majority support.

Adopting 1-2-3 voting would have numerous benefits:

* Candidates and taxpayers would save money. Traditional runoff elections are costly, both to the taxpayers who pay for the second election and to candidates who must spend more campaign cash.

* There would be no more "spoilers" or vote-splitting. In multiple-candidate races, like-minded constituencies can split their votes among different candidates. All voters and partisan sides will benefit from a more democratic voting system that gives voters the winner they want most.

* Voter participation would rise. Since lesser-favored candidates don't have to worry about being a "spoiler," they can campaign hard, raise important issues and turn out supporters who then have the option of ranking a "realistic candidate" second on their ballots. Voters can get more excited about voting and campaigning for their favorite candidates.

* Campaign debate would improve. Because candidates know that winning may require being the second or third choice of supporters of other candidates, they will be less inclined to attack opponents.

Above all, 1-2-3 voting satisfies two of democracy's fundamental demands: majority rule and incentives for participation. Our current electoral laws too often fail these tests.


Rob Richie is executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonprofit organization based in Washington DC that educates about voting systems.  Steven Hill is the Center's west coast director.  

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