Resolving Buchanan's Dilemma

By Rob Richie and Caleb Kleppner
This appeared in papers around the country in October 1999, including the Syracuse Herald and the Charlotte News and Observer.

Pat Buchanan faces a dilemma. The Republican Party doesn't seem to want Buchanan's conservative populism, but his running under the Reform Party banner could throw the 2000 presidential race to the Democrats.

Under our current electoral rules, Buchanan has to decide what he values more: giving voters a meaningful alternative to the Democrats and Republicans, or dropping out for fear of indirectly helping Democrats, his greater of two evils.

Given Buchanan's complaint that Republicans have practically become a mirror image of the Democrats, his decision may be easier than pundits realize: if the parties are copies of each other, why should it matter if his candidacy swings the balance from one to the other?

Such fears certainly didn't stop Ross Perot in 1992. He may have siphoned enough votes from George Bush to help elect Bill Clinton, but his key issue -- a balanced federal budget -- soon became the mantra of both parties. Buchanan may hold back only if he lacks Perot's confidence in the popularity of his ideas.

The deeper question, then, is whether we should keep electoral rules that create the kind of perverse consequences evidenced by the debate over Buchanan.

First, does it makes sense that Pat Buchanan even has the potential to elect a Democrat even if the majority prefers George W. Bush? Is it right for Republicans to cut deals with Buchanan only out of fear of losing rather than belief in his agenda?

Second, how can rules be truly democratic if they discourage candidates from participating and keep voters from supporting their favorite candidate only to avoid helping their least favorite?

The fact is that threats of "spoiling" and fears of "vote-splitting" are not inherent in elections. They are just inherent in a plurality voting system, where the top vote getter wins, even with less than a majority.

Fortunately, there is a simple, tested alternative. Invented in the United States in 1870 and used for decades in Australia and Ireland, instant runoff voting (IRV) gives voters every incentive to support their preferred candidate and reverses fears about "spoilers." As a result, IRV creates incentives for participation by more candidates and more robust political discourse.

IRV also removes any uncertainty about whether a candidate is a true majority winner. In 1992 Bill Clinton won a majority in only one state: Arkansas. Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota with only 37% of the vote. Michael Capuano won a safely Democratic congressional seat after capturing the primary with 23%. With more third party and independent candidates running every year, such plurality wins will only increase.

IRV corrects these anti-democratic features of plurality rules with a simple change: allowing voters to rank candidates: 1, 2, 3.

Winners are determined by simulating a series of runoff elections. After tallying first-choices votes, any candidate with a majority wins. But if there is no majority winner, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Ballots for that candidate are redistributed to the next-choice candidate on each ballot. Everyone else's ballot stays with their top choice, and votes are retallied. This process continues until a candidate wins a majority.

In the 2000 presidential race, a conservative voter might rank Reform Party nominee Buchanan first and Republican nominee George Bush second. If Buchanan finished last and no candidate won a majority, that vote would go to Bush.

With IRV, Republicans in fact might urge Buchanan to run, as he could mobilize disaffected voters to participate and ultimately support the Republican nominee. Warren Beatty might run as left-leaning independent if he could send a positive message without delivering bad news to the Democratic party.

IRV is under serious consideration in such states as New Mexico, Alaska and Vermont. In an era of declining interest in politics and the fragmentation of our party system, IRV is a sensible step toward clearly democratic goals: majority rule and increased participation.

Rob Richie is executive director of The Center for Voting and Democracy and Caleb Kleppner is the Center's Majority Rule Project director. For more information, see or write to: PO Box 60037, Washington, DC 20039.