American Friends Service Committee
Sara Burke, Managing Editor
Sam Diener, Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
2161 Massachusetts Ave.
Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.
Solving the Spoiler Paradox through Instant Runoff Voting
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 (www.FixingElections.com). He was the campaign manager for the successful IRV campaign in San Francisco.
To Nader or not to Nader, that was the question in the 2000 presidential election. It also might be the question in 2004. A debate has already ensued over whether Nader should run. Charges of "spoiler" once again are dividing liberals and progressives, Democrats and Greens, who should be working together to defeat George W. Bush.
Neither side of the argument satisfies, because both are partly right. Votes for Nader instead of Al Gore in Florida and New Hampshire really did help elect Bush - though, as Nader likes to say, "Gore slipped on 50 banana peels, I was just one of them." Yet without Nader or a candidate like him, centrist Democrats will bury progressive and antiwar politics even deeper. Must we always be stuck choosing between the "lesser of two militarists"?
The very debate over a Nader campaign reveals a serious flaw in our antiquated electoral rules: 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.
Fortunately, the British, Australians and Irish have a simple solution: instant runoff voting (IRV). They all use instant runoff voting for at least some of their most important elections. Mary Robinson was elected President of Ireland by IRV. Labor Party maverick Ken Livingstone was elected mayor of London. The Australian legislature has been elected by IRV for decades. States could implement IRV right now for all federal elections, including the presidential race, without changing federal law or the Constitution.
Here's how IRV works. Voters select their favorite candidate, but at the same time indicate their runoff choices by ranking their candidates: first, second or third. If a candidate receives a majority of first choices, she or he is declared the winner. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and a runoff round of counting occurs immediately, using voters' "runoff" rankings. Your ballot counts for your top-ranked candidate still in the race. Runoff rounds continue until there is a majority winner.
IRV determines a true majority winner without a run-off and banishes the spoiler concept. In 2000, those voters who liked Ralph Nader but worried about George Bush could have ranked Nader first and Al Gore second. Rather than contributing to Gore's defeat, Nader could have stimulated debate and mobilized more voters.
IRV also encourage voter participation. It liberates voters to choose the candidates they really like instead of the "lesser of two evils," which in turn will encourage voters to vote sincerely instead of strategically.
IRV also decreases the incentives for negative campaigning that occur in the head-to-head combat of an election. Candidates have incentive to court the supporters of other candidates, asking for their second or third rankings. Successful candidates usually win by building coalitions, not by tearing down their opponents.
Freed from the spoiler stigma, Nader could have more easily gained access to the presidential debates, mobilized a progressive constituency, and won more votes - yet not helped elect Bush. Higher turnout and increased attention to progressive issues could have moved the political center and pulled Democrats back to their roots. Instead of working against each other, the Democratic Party and Green Party could be building coalitions where appropriate. All of these things are likely with IRV. Without it, the status quo prevails.
Public financing of elections and IRV are a dynamic combination. Public financing, which has been enacted in Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Arizona, will spur more candidacies and more debate. But that also leads inevitably to more non-majority winners and more spoiler candidacies from independents and third-party candidates. With IRV, clean-money candidates could run from across the spectrum without inviting spoiler charges.
IRV makes so much sense that it has gone quickly from being an unknown reform to one with real legs. It was passed by the voters of San Francisco and will be used to elect all local offices starting in 2004. Twenty state legislatures are considering IRV legislation. A charter commission in Austin, Texas has recommended replacing two-round runoffs with IRV, and voters in Oakland, Santa Clara and San Leandro, California, and Vancouver, Washington, have approved ballot measures to make IRV an explicit option in their charters. Many leading universities have adopted IRV or other ranked ballot methods for student elections, including Harvard University, MIT, Stanford, University of California-Berkeley, and Duke.
In Vermont, a broad-based coalition, including the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, Vermont State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, Vermont Grange and others, have passed advisory referenda in more than 50 towns urging the adoption of IRV for statewide offices, including governor. This effort has been boosted by the support of former Governor and current presidential candidate Howard Dean.
IRV has also drawn cross-partisan support, with John McCain, Jesse Jackson Jr., Dennis Kucinich, California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, and others joining Dean in support of IRV. IRV has won the endorsement of the National Organization of Women, US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), the League of Women Voters in several states and the Alaska Republican Party. The successful San Francisco campaign was endorsed by leading civil rights groups, seniors, tenants, labor unions, the Democratic and Green Parties, and a downtown "smart growth" group. The Utah Republican Party uses IRV to nominate its Congressional candidates, since they want their nominees to have majority support and to finish the nominations in one election.
If progressives and anti-war voters learn one lesson from the
2000 presidential election, let it be that future presidential
elections should be conducted using 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. IRV
better fulfills the democratic goals of electing majority winners
without fear of spoilers, and encouraging voter participation,
new political voices, and campaign debate.