Ralph Nader’s announcement of his independent candidacy brings back memories. In 1980, I ran for president as an independent after abandoning the Republican primaries. Even though polling near 25 percent when declaring my candidacy, 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 structure our electoral system 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 than two 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 in nearly every state. When he was shut out of the 1996 debates, polls showed that Americans wanted him in the debates by a margin of three to one. In 2000, a majority of Americans wanted to include the Green Party’s Nader and Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan in the debates.
But there is a fundamental, if easily correctable, problem with our electoral process. We use a plurality voting system where voting for your favorite candidate can contribute directly to the election of your least favorite.
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, and for the current condemnation of Ralph Nader for entering the presidential race.
Fortunately, there’s a solution, one already practiced for top offices in London, Ireland and Australia and in Utah and California for key elections: instant runoff voting. Any state could adopt this simple reform immediately for all federal elections, including the presidential race. There has been legislation backing instant runoff voting in nearly two dozen states, and former presidential candidates Howard Dean and John McCain advocate the system.
In instant runoff voting, people vote for their favorite candidate, but also can indicate subsequent choices by ranking their preferences as 1, 2, 3. 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.
Under this system, progressives who like Nader but worry about George Bush could rank Nader first and the Democrat second. Similarly, libertarian-minded conservatives upset with the Republican party’s positions on government spending could rank the Libertarian nominee first and Bush second. Rather than contributing to a major party candidates’ defeat, these candidates instead could stimulate debate and mobilize new voters.
Our primitive 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.
JOHN B. ANDERSON served in Congress from 1961 to 1981 and was an independent presidential candidate in 1980. He is president of the Center for Voting and Democracy and can be contacted at: PO Box 60037, Washington, DC 20039.