Rob Richie

How Democrats can avoid a brokered convention disaster

The straightforward question almost slipped unnoticed into the bloodbath and sharp elbows that was Wednesday night's Democratic debate.

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Why Biden's big lead recalls Trump 2016 — and why that's a problem for democracy

The tiny Northern Mariana Islands likely never imagined that its March 2016 presidential caucus would make history. But when Donald Trump defeated Texas Sen. Ted Cruz by 343 votes to 113, Trump not only claimed the islands’ nine delegates but something more important. It was the first time the New York businessman had won a majority in any primary or caucus.

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The Mainstream Crying For Election Reform

The day following Election 2004, retiring NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw indicated the need for strong national standards in how we count the votes. In an unusually serious interview with David Letterman, Brokaw said point blank, "We've gotta fix the election system in this country."

In a message to supporters, former presidential candidate John Kerry echoed this sentiment, calling for new "national standards" for elections and saying "It's unacceptable that people still don't have full confidence in the integrity of the voting process." In Ohio, Reverend Jesse Jackson also called for reform, emphasizing the need for a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote, a right guaranteed by most established democracies. Every returning member of the Congressional Black Caucus has signed onto Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr's HJR 28 to provide a constitutional right to vote.

The 2004 elections underscore the urgent demand to modernize our elections and bring them in line with international norms. Without such modernization, we will fail to establish a vital democracy and remain vulnerable to electoral breakdowns.

Consider these reforms:

1) Non-partisan election officials. At the top of the list must be nonpartisan election officials. It hardly matters whether the method of voting is with paper and pen or open-source computerized equipment if election administrators are not trustworthy. The secretaries of state overseeing elections in three battleground states – Ohio, Missouri, and Michigan – were co-chairs of their state's George Bush reelection campaigns. In Missouri, that Secretary of State was running for governor – he oversaw elections for his own race! A highly partisan Republican Secretary of State ran elections in Florida, as did a partisan Democrat in New Mexico. A Mexican observer of the 2004 election commented, "That looks an awful lot like the old Mexican PRI to me." Election administrators should be civil servants who have a demonstrated proficiency with technology, running elections, and making the electoral process transparent and secure.

2) National elections commission. The U.S. leaves election administration to administrators in over 3000 counties scattered across the nation with too few standards or uniformity. This is a formula for unfair elections. Most established democracies use national elections commissions to establish minimum national standards and uniformity, and to partner with state and local election officials to ensure pre-election and post-election accountability for their election plans. The Elections Assistance Commission established recently by the Help America Vote Act is a pale version of this and should be strengthened greatly.

3) Universal voter registration. We lack a system of universal voter registration in which citizens who turn 18 years of age automatically are registered to vote by election authorities. This is the practice used by most established democracies, giving them voter rolls far more complete and clean than ours – in fact, a higher percentage of Iraqi adults are registered to vote than American adults. Universal voter registration in the U.S. is now possible as result of the Help America Vote Act which mandated that all states must establish statewide voter databases by 2006. It would add 50 million voters to the rolls, a disproportionate share being young people and people of color.

4) "Public Interest" voting equipment. Currently voting equipment is suspect, undermining confidence in our elections. The proprietary software and hardware are created by shadowy companies with partisan ties who sell equipment by wining and dining election administrators with little knowledge of voting technology. The government should oversee the development of publicly-owned software and hardware, contracting with the sharpest minds in the private sector. And then that open-source voting equipment should be deployed throughout the nation to ensure that every county – and every voter – is using the best equipment. Other nations already do this with positive results.

5) Holiday/weekend elections. We vote on a busy workday instead of on a national holiday or weekend (like most other nations do), creating a barrier for 9 to 5 workers and also leading to a shortage of poll workers and polling places. Puerto Rico typically has the highest voter turnout in the United States, and makes Election Day a holiday.

6) Ending redistricting shenanigans by adopting full representation. Most legislators choose their voters during the redistricting process, long before those voters get to choose them. 98% of U.S. House incumbents again won re-election, and 95% of all races were won by noncompetitive margins. The driving factor is not campaign finance inequities but winner-take-all elections compounded by rigged legislative district lines. As a start, redistricting must be non-partisan, driven by nonpolitical criteria. But by far the best solution is full representation electoral systems which make voters far more important than district lines.

7) Abolish the Electoral College. The Electoral College enables presidential campaigns to almost completely ignore most states. It allows a shift of a handful of votes in one or two states to decide the presidency, inviting corruption and partisan election administration. It can deny the presidency to the candidate with the most votes. We need to support Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr's HR 109, to institute direct election of the president with a majority victory threshold.

8) Pry open our democracy. Our "highest vote-getter wins" method of electing executive offices creates incentives to keep third-party candidates off the ballot as potential spoilers. Battles over Ralph Nader's ballot access demonstrated that our system is not designed to accommodate three or more choices, yet important policy areas can be completely ignored by major party candidates. Most modern democracies accommodate voter choice through two-round runoff or instant runoff elections for executive offices, and full representation electoral systems for legislatures. Instant runoff voting had a great first election in San Francisco this November and passed in other places like Burlington, Vermont and Ferndale, Michigan.

A number of organizations are highlighting reform packages, among them Progressive Democrats of America and Common Cause. We can't win all these reforms at once, but we can make advances if we keep our eye on the prize and pursue opportunities that emerge. We urge people to visit FairVote's website at fairvote.org to find out how to get involved. Whether you're a Democrat, Republican, Green, Libertarian or independent, you can be part of one big party: the "Better Democracy" party.

How to Handle Nader

In 2000, Al Gore beat George W. Bush in the state of New Mexico by a mere 356 votes – a slimmer margin than in Florida. Ralph Nader polled 21,000 votes. Nader not only nearly cost Gore the state, but forced him to expend valuable resources there in the campaign's waning days, draining his effort from Florida.

Flash forward to 2004. Once again the Democratic and Republican candidates are locked in a tight race nationally. Once again Nader's entry into the race threatens Kerry's hold on New Mexico. And once again two candidates who share many views and bases of support – and who ideally could work together to challenge George Bush on the economy, the war in Iraq, the future of social security, the environment, political reform and health care – instead are players in a Cain and Abel drama, courtesy of the all-or-nothing, winner-take-all nature of our presidential election method.

Yet there is a way out – if New Mexico Democrats decide they want one. Democrats control New Mexico's state legislature, and one of Kerry's leading vice-presidential contenders, Bill Richardson, is governor. Democrats could pass into law – right now – a runoff or instant runoff system with a majority requirement for president to ensure that the center-left does not split its vote between Kerry and Nader.

Here's how. The Constitution mandates the antiquated Electoral College system for electing the president, in which there is a series of elections in the fifty states and the District of Columbia rather than one national election. But the Constitution specifically delegates to states the method of choosing its electors. States historically have used a variety of different approaches, including letting the state legislature appoint electors, as threatened by Florida Republicans in 2000. Nebraska and Maine, for example, award two electoral votes to the winner of the statewide vote and one vote to the winner of the popular vote in each congressional district (a flawed approach that would boost Republicans if in place nationally).

The remaining states use a statewide winner-take-all plurality method where the highest vote-getter wins 100 percent of that state's electoral votes, even if that candidate wins less than a popular majority. With plurality voting, a majority of voters can split their vote among two or more candidates and end up winning nothing. Indeed because of the presence of Nader and other candidates like Pat Buchanan, nine states in 2000 awarded all their electoral votes to a candidate who did not win a popular majority. Fully 49 of 50 states were won without a majority in 1992. It is the lack of a majority requirement that leads Nader and Kerry forces to clash so bitterly.

To be sure, Republicans may cry foul if New Mexico Democrats suddenly switch to a runoff system, but even if Democrats' action is self-interested, it's also in the public interest to protect majority rule and allow for voter choice. One approach would be to adopt a runoff system similar to that used in most presidential elections around the world, most southern primaries and many local elections: A first round with all candidates would take place in New Mexico in early October. The top two finishers would face off in November, with the winner certain to have a majority.

Better still would be to adopt instant runoff voting (IRV). Used in Ireland and Australia and recently adopted for city elections in San Francisco and for congressional and gubernatorial nominations by the Utah Republican Party, IRV has drawn support from Howard Dean, Jesse Jackson Jr. and John McCain. By allowing voters to rank the candidates (for example, a 1 for Ralph Nader and a 2 for John Kerry), IRV can resolve the spoiler problem. Voters are liberated to vote for their favorite candidate without helping to elect their least favorite. IRV also saves candidates the campaign costs of a runoff election and preserves more voter choice in the decisive November election when voter turnout is highest.

New Mexico's state senate in fact already passed IRV legislation in 1999 in the wake of Democrats losing two congressional seats due in part to Green Party candidacies. Despite support from the AFL-CIO and Common Cause, the proposal died because of concerns about costs of implementing it and because some Democrats would rather destroy Greens than allow for co-existence.

Democrats also call the shots in the presidential battleground states of Maine, West Virginia and Tennessee. With one vote of the legislature and a stroke of the governor's pen, these states could accommodate the reality of the Nader candidacy. The question is: What is stopping them?

While Ralph Nader may be ready to risk a repeat of 2000 – and could do much more to make multi-party democracy a viable option by highlighting reforms such as IRV – most Greens don't want to be spoilers. They consistently support reforming winner-take-all elections, and their presidential frontrunner David Cobb promises to focus this fall on safe states, in recognition of Greens' interest in defeating George Bush. But only Democrats and Republicans have the power to change the rules of the game.

Democrats' failure to use that power poses the question: Would they rather engage in name-calling and suppressing candidacies, even at the risk of costing themselves the presidential election, than allow new political voices to join the fray? More people, Democrats and non-Democrats alike, should begin asking party leaders: Why not IRV?

Dropping Out of the Electoral College

Every presidential election matters, but 2004 has particular significance. Re-election of George W. Bush with the return of Republican majorities in the U.S. Senate and House could tip the ideological balance of the Supreme Court and federal courts for a generation. It could trigger a wave of Democratic retirements in the House that might cement Republican domination on Capitol Hill for decades. It could unleash a wave of hard-right policy initiatives.

So everyone should be involved, right? In a democracy, it's one person, one vote?

There's just one problem: that's not the way we elect the president. We cling to a thoroughly outmoded Electoral College that divides us along regional lines, undercuts accountability, dampens voter participation and can undermine legitimacy when the electoral vote trumps the national popular vote. As the bumper sticker notes, Democrats have to RE-defeat Bush this year because the Electoral College denied Al Gore's popular vote advantage of a half-million votes in 2000.

Instead of a simple national election, we hold 51 separate contests in the states and the District of Columbia, with each state having a number of electoral votes equal to its number of U.S. Senators and House members (ranging from three electoral votes in the states with the fewest people to 55 electoral votes in California). This arrangement awards more electoral votes per capita to low population states which tend to be conservative, giving Republican candidates an unfair advantage. It's like having a foot race where one side starts10 yards ahead of the other.

A presidential candidate needs to receive the highest number of votes in the right combination of states to win a majority of the Electoral College vote.The perverse incentives created by this method are painfully obvious from this year's campaign – most states already are effectively ignored by the candidates and groups seeking to mobilize voters because in a competitive national race, most states are dominated by one party or the other. Most campaign focus and energy – and increasingly, even the candidates' messages for how they plan to govern – are pitched to undecided swing voters in the key battleground states. If you feel like your issues and concerns are being ignored, chances are it's because you live in the wrong state and/or are not part of the faceless slice of undecided swing voters.

The Electoral College's democratic deficit is compounded by the use of plurality elections – the candidate with the most votes wins 100 percent of the electoral votes from that state, even if less than a majority. Plurality elections mean that a popular majority can be fractured by the presence of a third party candidate. Far more than any ballot corruption in Florida, Al Gore was hurt by the nearly hundred thousand voters in Florida who supported Ralph Nader.

So what can be done? Over the years, leading national political figures like Strom Thurmond, Orrin Hatch, Ted Kennedy, Kweisi Mfume, Hillary Clinton and John McCain have supported approaches to amend, reform or scrap the Electoral College. The time has come to institute a national direct election.

While there are serious proposals that would keep the Electoral College, fundamentally, the only transparent solution to this anti-democratic mess is to have "one person, one vote" jall across the nation. Every American voter should count as much as every other voter; it shouldn't depend on where you live. All would have the same incentive to vote, no matter your postal address.

There are important questions to resolve for a nationwide direct election, however. One of them is related to our antiquated plurality tradition where the highest vote-getter wins, even if less than a majority. This has happened in several gubernatorial elections in the past decade. That possibility occurring for a nationwide presidential election presents problems of legitimacy.

To prevent this problem, most direct election amendments call for a second "runoff" election between the top two finishers if no candidate receives at least 40 percent of the vote. But 40 percent is an arbitrary standard that is too low for winning our highest office. A strong leader should be able to reach out effectively to enough voters to command majority support.

Two-round runoffs also pose problems. Candidates would have to scramble for extra cash to run a second campaign, and additional costs to election officials for a nationwide election could be a half billion dollars. And voters would have to trudge out to the polls one more time.

Rather than mandate a low 40 percent threshold and two rounds of voting, any amendment to the Constitution should allow electoral mechanisms to determine a majority winner in a single election, such as instant runoff voting. IRV simulates a two-round runoff in one election by allowing voters to rank their "runoff" choices along with their first choice, 1, 2, 3. Instead of having a second election, ballot-counters use the rankings to determine the runoff choices of those voters whose first choice failed to advance to the runoff. The system is used for major elections in Great Britain, Australia and Ireland, and this year in such diverse settings as the Utah Republican Party state convention and city elections in San Francisco.

With large majorities of Americans against the Electoral College, Democrats have nothing to fear in picking up on Hillary Clinton's call in November 2000 for a constitutional amendment for direct election. And they have much to gain: a unique opportunity to end an anti-democratic, 18th-century anachronism.

Ensuring a Fair Presidential Election

Many pundits and activists have finally figured out what political insiders always knew: our presidential election is not a national election at all. The battle for chief executive will be fought in 15 battleground states, none either solidly Republican red or Democratic blue, each fought as individual contests that will be too close to call. This political geography presents important lessons for partisans and reformers alike.

In a likely replay of the 2000 election, the battleground states are Florida (of course), Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, West Virginia, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Arizona. Some add Louisiana, Tennessee and Nevada, making 18 states.

These states' concerns will drive much of the campaign debate. Those in the Midwest's rust belt have been hit hard by job losses, particularly in well-paying manufacturing jobs, making states like Ohio competitive. More Latino voters in New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada create dilemmas for Republicans on issues like immigration. With the prominence of Florida and its senior citizens, we'll hear a lot about Medicare and Social Security. And don't expect John Kerry to highlight gun control or other pet liberal issues when the almighty swing voters in battleground states mostly oppose them.

Key issues of concern to those in other states -- even large states like Texas, New York, Illinois and California -- will get short shrift because they are not in play. Just as in our largely non-competitive congressional races, most Americans effectively will be on the political sidelines.

But that doesn't mean those voters can't be involved in certain ways. They can make sure friends and relatives in the battleground states are registered to vote. They can hold house parties to raise campaign cash for the close states. Some might even be able to travel to a nearby battleground state and volunteer.

Most immediately, voters everywhere can highlight the need for fair elections. With the two sides so close, we could be looking at another "Florida" happening in any number of battleground states, perhaps in several of them. The political geography of battleground states allows the presidential candidates to target not only their resources and campaigning -- but also their attempts to steal the election. Changing the results in one battleground state, particularly a large state like Ohio or Pennsylvania, will make a difference in the outcome.

So advocates of fair elections similarly must target our efforts to lessen the chance of another Florida happening. That means working in the 15 battleground states with civic groups like People for the American Way, the League of Women Voters and Advancement Project to:

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The Challenges to Creating a New Democratic Majority

In their recently acclaimed book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira make the case that long-term demographic trends favor the Democratic Party. Given the electoral letdown suffered by the Democratic Party in the 2002 and 2000 elections, and also throughout the 1990s as the Democrats lost control of the Congress and the presidency, Judis and Teixeira's themes have offered a ray of hope in a dismal political landscape.

But a stable Democratic majority in the Congress or the Presidency is not likely to emerge anytime soon, and here's why: Because even if Judis and Teixeira are correct that the demographics are shifting toward the Democratic side, structurally our 18th century winner-take-all political system will continue to favor conservatives and the Republican Party. Unless confronted by reformers, that structural bias trumps the shifting demographics.

Electoral battles for the House, the Senate and the presidency are fought out district by district and state by state in winner-take-all contests -- not on a national basis. So the national polls on which Judis and Teixeira rely for their analysis are less and less meaningful.

The problem is where Democrats and Republicans live. Democrats tend to live heavily concentrated in the Blue America urban areas, with Republicans more evenly dispersed in the Red America rural areas as well as suburban areas. The fact is, when the national vote is tied, Republicans still win a healthy majority of Congressional seats.

Indeed in 2000, even as Al Gore beat George Bush by a half-million votes, and the combined center-left Gore-Nader vote had an even bigger lead, Bush beat Gore in 227 out of 435 U.S. House districts and in 30 out of 50 states. New U.S. House districts are even more lopsided, with Bush's advantage now rising to 237 to 198. It's no coincidence that Republicans currently hold 229 U.S. House seats.

An issue like gun control is a great example. National polls have shown for some time that, nationally, the public wants gun control. But that doesn't make a bit of difference, because most of those people who want gun control live in states and congressional districts that already are locked up for the Democratic Party, particularly in the urban areas of Blue America. What matters are the battleground states (for the presidency and Senate) and battleground congressional districts (for the Congress), and those electorates either don't care as much about gun control or actively oppose it. In the aftermath of Election 2000, many Democrats now believe that Gore's pre-campaign support for gun control may have cost him such rural states as West Virginia, Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio, Arkansas and his own state, Tennessee.

Even if there are more Democratic voters, to make a difference they need to be moving into areas now held by Republicans, not into current Democratic strongholds. If the "Democratic majority" emerges mostly in states and districts where Democrats already are strong, it just increases their winning majorities in those areas -- without changing the outcome of presidential winners or congressional majorities. If it occurs in states and districts where it's not enough to overcome safe Republican majorities, again no electoral results will change. Ultimately it will take a supermajority of Democratic voters to win a bare majority of Democratic seats -- particularly progressive Democratic seats.

Also, the distortions resulting from the redrawing of legislative district lines can turn a statewide partisan majority into a minority of legislative seats, and Republicans seem more conniving and successful at this backroom dealing. For instance, Virginia Democrats in 2001 won their first gubernatorial race since 1989, but Republicans went from barely controlling the statehouse to a two-thirds majority. How? Republicans drew the district lines. In Florida, Democrats were strong enough to hold both U.S. Senate seats and gain a virtual tie in the presidential race, but with full control over redistricting Republicans went from a 15-8 edge in U.S. House seats to an overwhelming 18 to 7 advantage. Republicans also have won lopsided shares of seats in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania due to control over redistricting, and now the Tom DeLay-led GOP in Texas is seeking to re-redistrict their House districts to pick up another 5 to 7 seats.

Moreover, the Democrats did not leave themselves very many opportunities for retaking House seats. In states like California, where the Democrats controlled redistricting, they opted to protect their incumbents rather than try to gobble up more seats as the GOP has done in other states.

Teixeira and Judis try to account for these factors to some degree on pages 69-72 of their book, but their analysis of this is brief, overly optimistic, and unconvincing. Also, they and others point to the increasing migration of Latinos to the heartland, as well as states like California, Florida, and Texas, as a trend that will overturn the Republican applecart. Certainly, the Latinization of the U.S. is one of the "hopeful" scenarios, but the horizon for that is more like 20 years, not ten.

Similar arguments also can be made for the presidential election, which is won or lost in a handful of battleground states, and the U.S. Senate. Both of these have a structural bias that awards more per capita representation to low-population states, which in turn favors the Republican Party and its candidates, and will tend to frustrate any emerging Democratic majority.

Thus, due to the distortions, peculiarities, and the lack of proportionality built into our 18th-century winner take all, geographic-based, political system, winning a majority of votes does NOT necessarily mean you end up with a majority of seats. Winner-take-all means "if I win, you lose," and in that zero sum game the Democrats will continue to come out on the short end of the stick. The Republican Party and its think tanks seem to understand this much better than the Democrats.

Relying on our analysis, one can make a strong case that the hope for the Democratic Party lies in enacting full representation electoral systems. With full representation (also known as proportional representation), the Democrats as well as the Republicans will win their fair share of legislative seats that matches their proportion of the popular vote. Redistricting and demographic trends will not distort outcomes and produce such exaggerated results. Only with full representation systems will the types of demographic shifts identified by Judis and Teixeira, that perhaps over time should favor an emerging Democratic majority, ever have a chance to win at the ballot box.

Steven Hill is a senior analyst at the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org) and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics," which is out in paperback this month (www.FixingElections.com). Rob Richie is executive director of the Center.

For more information about CVD's upcoming national conference, "Claim Democracy," November 22-23 in Washington, D.C., backed by a broad range of pro-democracy groups, visit www.democracyusa.org/events/conference.html.

The co-authors of this article, Steven Hill and Rob Richie, are both with the Center for Voting and Democracy. Steve is the author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics" (Routledge Press, www.FixingElections.com), and Rob and Steve are co-authors of Whose Vote Counts (Beacon Press, 2001).

Instant Runoff Voting: Power to the Voters

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.

Major Victory for Voting Reform

The first Tuesday in March marked the starting gun for this year's critical off-year congressional elections. In California, Democratic and Republican primaries ended the political careers of scandal-ridden Congressman Gary Condit, who was running for re-election, and former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, running for Governor.

But the biggest bang may have been ground-breaking votes on instant runoff voting in hip, urban San Francisco and more than four dozen towns across rural, independent-minded Vermont. Instant runoff voting has the potential to crack open electoral politics to new voices and better choices.

San Franciscans voted 56 to 44 percent to pass their city's "Proposition A" and become the first major city in the United States to use instant runoff voting (IRV) to elect its local officials. The comfortable margin caught city observers by surprise, given editorial opposition from the paper's dailies and a slick, well-funded opposition campaign from political consultants and downtown business leaders fighting for traditional "delayed" runoffs.

In Vermont, more than 50 town meetings debated adoption of IRV for statewide offices. Of the 51 reporting results, 49 towns gave a big thumbs up, most by overwhelming margins. Several bigger towns like Burlington supported the issue by two-to-one margins. The Vermont League of Women Voters led the campaign, but backers include a range of supporters, from Governor Howard Dean and Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz to 2000 Republican gubernatorial nominee Ruth Dwyer, Progressive Party leaders and the Grange.

The San Francisco campaign, a grassroots effort that garnered endorsements from a range of civic players, was spearheaded by the Center for Voting and Democracy. Supporters included California House Assembly Leader Kevin Shelley -- an upset winner in the race for the Democratic Party nomination for Secretary of State -- 1999 mayoral candidate Tom Ammiano, Democratic Party, Common Cause, NOW, California PIRG, the Sierra Club, Green Party, Libertarian Party, Reform Party, San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO, Congress of California Seniors, Asian Week, Chinese for Affirmative Action, Harvey Milk Democratic Club, United Farm Workers and over three dozen others.

Why did all of these groups -- often political enemies -- come together behind IRV? Consider our current electoral laws. When several candidates run for a particular office, the winner often receives less than majority support. A quick flashback to the presidential election of 2000 recalls not only that George W. Bush won with less than a majority of the popular vote, but the center-left majority split itself in states like Florida and New Hampshire between Al Gore and Ralph Nader. Allowing the "plurality" winner to take office can deny the majority its right to decide single-seat elections, and at the same time stifle support for underdog candidates who are too easily pigeon-holed as "spoilers."

Delayed runoff elections are a flawed alternative used in many cities and southern primaries. If no candidate receives an initial majority, voters must return weeks later to choose between the top two vote-getters. Supporters of the two advancing candidates must show up again to reconfirm their initial vote, while backers of eliminated candidates must generate enough enthusiasm to vote for their preference among the top two.

Not surprisingly, voter turnout in runoffs often drops precipitously, particularly once the candidates start battering one another in negative campaigns. This allows special interest contributors who fund those negative ad blitzes to gain more leverage over winners.

Instant runoff voting, also called "same-day" runoffs, provides an effective alternative. Used for major elections in Australia, Ireland and Great Britain, IRV ensures that candidates win single-seat offices with majority support in one efficient election. Voters indicate both their favorite and their runoff choices on the same ballot. If no candidate receives a winning majority of first choices, the weak candidates are eliminated. As in a traditional delayed runoff, their supporters choose among the runoff finalists according to the preferences marked on their ballots. Voters who ranked one of the finalists first continue to have their votes count for their favorite choice.

Imagine if instant runoff voting had been in place in 2000 when Ralph Nader and Al Gore together won a clear majority of the presidential vote, both in Florida and nationally. Many voters for Gore or even for Bush might have supported Nader if they had not been worried about the "spoiler effect." Not only would Nader's vote have been a truer reflection of his level of support, but ultimately the Nader vote would have pushed Gore to clear wins in Florida and the national electoral count.

Among its benefits, IRV could be particularly helpful in cities with racially diverse populations. Last year, runoff elections between white and non-white mayoral candidates exacerbated racial division in cities like Houston, Los Angeles and New York. Instant runoff voting would have promoted coalition-building in a single round of voting, rather than the charged politics of a one-on-one runoff election.

The March 5 wins for instant runoff voting could start a national trend. California is developing into a hotbed of enthusiasm for instant runoff voting, with strong interest in Oakland, Pasadena, Santa Clara County and San Leandro. Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg last year introduced legislation to implement IRV for special elections to fill congressional and legislative vacancies.

Vermont's grassroots success promises to boost state legislation already backed by the governor and secretary of state. Instant runoff voting advocates in states like Alaska, Florida, New Mexico and Washington are poised to capitalize on the San Francisco victory and the clear message from Vermont's towns.

Even as Congress moves toward apparent passage of bills to ban soft money in campaigns and modernize the way we run elections, the thirst for more responsive, open, and accountable democracy will not cease. In cities and states around the nation, democracy advocates are ready to push beyond their current efforts to lessen the impact of money in politics and improve electoral mechanics. As so often in our history, we can count on dedicated reformers at the grassroots to keep pushing us toward a stronger, fully realized democracy.

Rob Richie, Eric Olson and Steven Hill work for the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org), a national nonprofit organization. Steven Hill was the campaign manager for San Francisco's Proposition A.

Redistricting Returns with a Vengeance

Voters, beware. Redistricting is back. Every 10 years it revisits us like a recurring plague. This year's shenanigans show just why the renewed civic pride in the wake of September's terrorist attacks won't bring many disenchanted Americans back to the polls.

After the release of new census numbers, all legislative districts in the nation must be redrawn to make sure that they are closely equal in population. In a large state, that means about 640,000 residents for each U.S. House district.

Whichever political party controls the line-drawing process has the God-like powers to guarantee themselves majority control and make or break individual political careers. They rely on "packing" and "cracking": packing as many opponents into as few districts as possible, and "cracking" an opponent's natural base into different districts. Powerful computers and software have made this process of unnatural selection ever more sophisticated and precise.

Does it make a difference? You bet it does. In Virginia, the Democrats in 2001 won their first statewide race for governor since 1989. But Republicans went from barely controlling the statehouse to a two-thirds' majority. How? That's right -- Republicans drew the district lines.

One of the best examples of partisan gerrymandering was California's congressional plan in the 1980s. The late Congressman Phil Burton, its chief architect, called it his "contribution to modern art." One district was a ghastly looking, insect-like polygon with 385 sides.

The result? In the 1984 elections the Democrats increased their share of California's house seats to 60 percent even as Ronald Reagan's landslide win helped Republican congressional candidates win more votes than Democrats in the state.

This year in various states one party indeed has stuck it to the other -- just ask a Republican who was mugged in Georgia or Maryland or a Democrat roughed up in Michigan or Pennsylvania. In all those states and more, one party or the other used their redistricting advantage to wipe out seats of the opposition.

But this year the real story is that both parties have often colluded to take on their real enemy: the voters. This year will go down in political history for the crass way it has raised "incumbent protection" to a whole new level. With half the states finished with redistricting, the current round may be the most anti-democratic ever.

Take California. The California Democratic Party controlled redistricting, and its leaders decided to cement their advantage rather then expand it. Incumbents took no chances. Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez acknowledged to the Orange County Register that she and most of her Democratic U.S. House colleagues each forked over $20,000 to Michael Berman, the powerful Democratic Party consultant in charge of redistricting.

The money was classic "protection money." Sanchez stated "$20,000 is nothing to keep your seat. I spend $2 million (campaigning) every election. If my colleagues are smart, they'll pay their $20,000, and Michael will draw the district they can win in."

California's Republican Party, which has vociferously opposed past Democratic redistricting plans, was largely mute. That's because their pliant incumbents also were bought off with the promise of safe seats. The one incumbent facing a tough re-election battle promptly announced his retirement; the rest are likely free from serious competition for the next ten years.

The story has been the same in state after state. The Wall Street Journal in a November editorial on "The Gerrymander Scandal" estimated that as few as 30 of the 435 U.S. House seats will be competitive next year. Already fewer than one in 10 House seats were won by competitive margins in 1998 and 2000.

The ones hurt by these back-room deals are the voters. For most voters, their only real choice in the next decade will be to ratify the candidate of the party that was handed that district in redistricting. One-party fiefdoms will be the rule no matter what changes are made in campaign financing and term limits until we reform the redistricting process or turn to more innovative voting methods like proportional representation.

There once was a time when voters went to the polls on the first Tuesday in November and picked their representatives. But that's changed. Now, the representatives pick us first. Following on the heels of Florida's election debacle, this only further undermines confidence in our already shaky political system.

Rob Richie and Steven Hill are, respectively, the executive director and the western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org) and co-authors of "Whose Vote Counts?" (Beacon Press 2001).

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