What Would Jefferson Do? excerpt

Institute "instant runoff" voting, to make minority parties viable.

Most democracies in the world today have healthy multiparty systems, but older ones (such as America and the UK) don't. The reason is simple: the idea of proportional representation hadn't been conceived when the older democracies were formed.

It wasn't until the 1840s that John Stuart Mill first wrote about it, which is why most democracies formed after 1850 have healthy multiparty systems that represent a broad range of political opinions. Older democracies are usually two-party states.

Knowing that there was a deficiency in the American system, James Madison wrote long letters and articles begging America's politicians not to form political parties, but it was all for naught. By the late 1790s, the Democratic Republicans had split off from the Federalists and we've had a two-party system in the United States ever since.

The problem is that we have winner-take-all elections. If more than two candidates run, it's possible for a candidate to take the seat with fewer than a majority of the votes--and, as Madison noted, then the people are represented by a candidate whose opinions reflect only a minority of Americans. (A good example was the presidential election of 2000, in which Bush got three million fewer votes than his opposition, Gore and Nader.)

There are two solutions to this problem. The first is proportional representation, as they have in Israel, Germany, and many other nations. If there are 100 seats in parliament, and party "A" gets 22 percent of the vote, they get 22 seats. Party "B" that got 19 percent of the vote gets 19 seats, whereas Party "C" that got 31 percent of the vote gets 31 seats, and so on, to 100 percent. The result is that politicians have to form alliances and coalitions, and learn to work together, and it guarantees that pretty much all the opinions of We the People are represented by somebody in parliament.

Given that it's unlikely we'll amend our Constitution to allow for proportional representation any day soon, a quick solution is Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), as proposed by legislators in over 30 states and already instituted in some cities such as San Francisco. If an IRV system had been in place during the 2000 presidential election, for example, everybody would have been presented with a two-tiered ballot. For each office, you could have selected your first choice and a second choice if you want.

Let's say that your first choice was Ralph Nader, but you'd tolerate Al Gore. You could have picked Nader as number one and Gore as number two.

Then, if no candidate got more than 50 percent of the vote (as none of them did), all ballots that didn't go for one of the top two candidates would be counted again, using the second-choice votes. most of Nader's votes would have become Gore votes, and Gore would have been declared the winner. no candidate could win without being selected (first or second) on a majority of ballots.

IRV encourages multiparty participation in elections without creating the odd situation we have today in which, when you vote for a third (or fourth) party candidate, you actually hurt the mainstream candidate with whom he or she is most closely aligned. IRV works well, and Australia has adopted a form of it nationwide. Many communities across America have adopted it for the local elections, and a few states are considering it. Not surprisingly, the Green Party is working hard to get it passed everywhere in the United States.

And it should be passed. Because--regardless of your political beliefs--it enhances the vitality of democracy and increases participation, because nobody need feel that their vote would be pointless.

Given Jefferson's belief in the value of giving people a voice, it seems certain that he would have approved.

Thom Hartmann is the host of a nationally syndicated radio show, The Thom Hartmann Program, and the award-winning author of fourteen books. He lives in Montpelier, Vermont, and can be found on the Internet at www.thomhartmann.com.