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Instant Runoff Voting: Power to the Voters

When the presidency can be won by 527 votes in a nation of 300 million, something needs to be changed. Around the country, people are working to fix a wounded electoral system.
 
 
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Spurred by the memory of Ralph Nader spoiling Al Gore's election, by other third party threats to major party incumbents and by expensive runoff contests, instant runoff voting (IRV) has moved to the top of major parties' reform agenda in several states. At the same time, a growing number of social change activists are supporting IRV as a means to bring new ideas and energy into electoral politics resulting in its adoption in cities like San Francisco and on campuses like the Universities of Maryland and Illinois.

States could implement this win-win reform right now for all federal elections, including the presidential race, without changing federal law or the Constitution. The Northeast is leading the way in promoting IRV, and momentum is rapidly growing. In Vermont, a bill to institute IRV for all statewide elections, including those for president, has a real chance in the next year. The supporters of this bill show the strength of the movement: former governor Howard Dean, civic groups like the League of Women Voters, Grange and the AFL-CIO, and a grassroots surge of activism have all lent their energy to this campaign.

In Maine, the president of the state senate recently declared instant runoff voting as one of her top priorities, saying that she wants it in place by 2004. With a nascent Green Party boosted by Maine's public financing of elections, Democrats are worried about losing control of the Senate due to split votes with third party candidates even as the Greens are excited by their new opportunities. The Maine People's Alliance, Maine Citizen Leadership Fund and other organizations which worked to pass clean elections in 1996 are now spearheading the IRV effort, seeing instant runoff voting as a natural complement to public financing.

Public financing allows more candidates to run, raise issues, debate and get information into the hands of voters without becoming beholden to special interest donors. IRV accommodates these new candidates by allowing voters to rank their candidates -- first choice, second choice, third choice -- without worrying about spoilers or unintended consequences such as helping to elect your least favorite candidate.

In Massachusetts, another "Clean Elections" state, grassroots activists are joining with statewide organizations like Common Cause, Commonwealth Coalition and Mass Vote to push instant runoff voting. They organized a one-day conference in Boston that turned out a packed audience despite a blizzard raging outside. Last fall FairVote Massachusetts sponsored two non-binding referendums in the Amherst/Northampton area, polling local voters about their support for IRV. Both of those referendums passed with over 70 percent of the vote. Currently, activists are working with Democratic legislators who have introduced three IRV-related legislative bills.

But it's not just the northeast that is catching on to instant runoff voting. Other statewide IRV efforts include Utah, Hawaii, California, Washington, Florida, and New Mexico, where state senate leader Richard Romero has introduced IRV legislation. In the wake of the growth of Jesse Ventura's party in Minnesota and the Green Party threat to the Paul Wellstone candidacy, Minnesota has seen real interest in IRV, with the state's governor and largest newspaper endorsing IRV.

Avoiding Another Election 2000 Debacle

Why does this movement matter? The very fact of the acrimonious debate in 2000 over Ralph Nader's campaign between Green Party voters and Democrats reveals a serious flaw in our antiquated 18th century electoral rules. Unfortunately, with our current method, 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 ensuring majority rule are basic requirements of democracy, but our current system badly fails these tests.

The British, Australians, and Irish have turned to a simple solution: IRV. They shared our tradition of electing candidates by plurality -- a system whereby voters have one vote, and the top vote-getter wins -- but have adopted IRV for most important elections. Irish presidents like Mary Robinson are elected by IRV. Labor Party maverick Ken Livingstone was elected mayor of London by IRV in 2000. The Australian House of Representatives has been elected by IRV for decades.

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 "runoff" choices. They do this by ranking candidates on their ballot. If a candidate receives a majority of first choices, she or he wins. 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 runoff. 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.

Think back to the 2000 presidential race. Without Nader, Al Gore likely would won more than 50 percent of the vote in both Florida and the nation and now be President. But with Nader, that majority vote was divided just enough to elect Bush. With IRV in 2000, Nader supporters worried about George Bush could rank Nader first and the Democratic Party candidate second.

In 2004, for example, suppose Bush won 47 percent of first choices in a key state like Florida and the Democrat 46 percent, Nader 6 percent and the rest 1 percent. Under current rules, Bush wins. But with IRV, after Nader loses in the instant runoff, his supporters would have the power to propel the Democrat above 50 percent and defeat Bush. Rather than contribute to a Democrat's defeat, Nader could help stop Bush, while delivering a message to the Democrats: 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 -- a very long shot in the current pool of voters -- while allowing the Green Party to gain a real foothold. In other words, a Green campaign would be a win-win, rewarding the energy of activists, whose belief in electoral politics is put at risk by the ongoing bitterness between Green supporters and Democrats.

Some, including Ralph Nader himself, have suggested that they like the ability to spoil the Democrats, and so they are afraid that IRV will cause them to lose their sting. But they fail to understand that the ability to sting is a short-term lever. Much like a bumblebee loses its weapon after stinging, another Nader candidacy surely will win fewer votes than the 2.7 percent attained in 2000 without IRV. Already Nader supporters like Ronnie Dugger and others are calling for Nader to bow out in 2004.

But with IRV, Nader might have hit double digits in 2000, and the Green Party would have achieved the five percent threshold for federal matching funds. Also, with IRV a Democratic candidate desiring to be named as the second/runoff ranking on Green Party ballots has incentive to court those voters by bending toward their issues instead of ignoring them. Evidence from Australia, London and elsewhere shows that with IRV, progressive voters would enjoy a level of influence and leverage both inside and outside the Democratic Party that currently does not exist.

Moving Forward on the Local Level

To advance IRV, cities are good targets for IRV campaigns. San Francisco achieved a major victory in March 2002 when its voters passed IRV for most major local races despite more than $100,000 spent by downtown business interests who were worried IRV would strengthen the city's progressive majority. The first election for mayor and other offices will be in November 2003, and that will be a tremendous watershed in the history of voting system reform. City charter commissions in Austin (TX), Kalamazoo (MI) and Albuquerque (NM) have all recommended using IRV. Voters in Santa Clara County, San Leandro, and Oakland (all in California), and Vancouver (WA) have approved ballot measures to make IRV an explicit option in their charters. In an exciting new branch of the movement, students in a number of major colleges have adopted IRV for student government elections.

To achieve truly fair representation, full (or "proportional") representation remains the Holy Grail for electing legislators. But IRV is the quickest way to eliminate the spoiler dynamic that suppresses candidacies -- and the debate and participation they could generate. If progressives learn one lesson from Election 2000, let it be that all of our elections 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.

Steven Hill is senior analyst for the Center for Voting and Democracy and author of " Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics" (Routledge Press). Rob Richie is the Center's executive director. To keep update with developments on IRV or join with local supporters, see the " get involved" section of the Center's website.