Instant Runoffs Would Improve Electoral Process

Posted March 5, 2004 at 5:20pm

Ralph Nader’s presidential bid brings back memories of my independent presidential run in 1980. Even though initially polling near and despite being a long-time leader in Congress, I was labeled a spoiler. My candidacy was said to deprive voters of the clear choice between incumbent Jimmy Carter and his Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan. Never mind that my platform clearly attracted many people uncomfortable with this choice.

Ever since then I have grappled with how we can reform elections to accommodate an increase in choices and the better dialogue and greater voter participation coming with those choices. Having an election between two candidates is obviously better than a one-party dictatorship, but having an election among more candidates is better than a two-party duopoly.

The American people know this. When Ross Perot ran for president in 1992, viewership of the presidential debates soared, and voter turnout rose sharply. When he was shut out of the 1996 debates, polls showed that Americans wanted him in the debates by a margin of 3-to-1. In 2000, a majority wanted to include Nader and the Reform Party’s candidate in the debates.

But there is a fundamental, if easily correctable, problem with our electoral process. We use a plurality system where voting for your favorite candidate can contribute directly to the election of your least favorite. The mere presence of a third choice on a ballot can turn a majority winner into a loser even with exactly the same set of voters.

Unlike most democracies, our states have set up presidential elections so that the candidate with the most votes wins all electoral votes, even if opposed by a majority of voters. That makes third-party or independent candidates “spoilers” if they split a major-party candidate’s vote. It’s this concern that drives the major parties to exclude other voices from the debates, for Democrats to condemn Nader for entering the presidential race and for Republicans to fear a prospective candidacy on the right — a reasonable fear, I might add, as most “spoiler” candidacies hurt the incumbent party.

Fortunately, there’s a solution, one already practiced for top offices overseas in London, Ireland and Australia and here in Utah and California: instant runoff voting. Any state could adopt this simple reform immediately for all federal elections, including the presidential race. Since 2002 there has been legislation backing instant runoff voting in nearly two dozen states, and advocates include former presidential candidates Howard Dean and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

In instant runoff voting, people vote for their favorite candidate but also can indicate subsequent choices by ranking their preferences as 1, 2, 3, etc. If a candidate receives a majority of first choices, that candidate wins. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and a second round of counting occurs. In this round, your ballot counts for your top-ranked candidate still in the race. Rounds of counting continue until there is a majority winner.

With instant runoff voting, we would determine a true majority winner in one election and banish the spoiler concept. Voters would not have to calculate possible perverse consequences of voting for their favorite candidate. They could vote their hopes, not their fears.

Rather than contributing to a major-party candidate’s defeat, third-party candidates instead could stimulate debate and mobilize new voters.

In the short-term, party primaries are an obvious place to consider instant runoff voting. Several Southern states use runoff elections, but holding two elections undercuts the majority principle. Of the last 84 federal runoffs, for example, 82 experienced a drop in voter turnout, on average by 35 percent. Runoffs also create extra election administration and campaign finance burdens.

Our awkward plurality voting system is this year’s biggest spoiler. Instant runoff voting would give us a more participatory, vital democracy, where candidates could be judged on their merits and the will of the majority would more certainly prevail.

Former Rep. John B. Anderson (R-Ill.) was an independent candidate for president in 1980. He is president of the Center for Voting and Democracy.