Ralph Nader must be feeling a little frustrated.
He's a man who cares passionately about the issues, who has exciting ideas for making things better and who is spending these hot summer months campaigning tirelessly all over the country. But all his efforts are overshadowed by the one huge question that has come to dominate his campaign: Will he split the anti-Bush vote enough for George W. Bush to win?
Though Nader insists the idea is nonsense, most other people believe it could happen. Shameless Republicans are helping Nader get on the ballot in a number of close-call states. And furious Democrats, desperate to take back the White House, are trying to beg and bully him out of the race.
It occurred to me the other day that perhaps Nader could take advantage of the Democratic desperation.
The Democrats want him out, right? Really, really, badly, right? Why not make a deal with them? The Democrats' fears, justified or not, give Nader more bargaining power than he has ever had -- more power than he will likely ever have again.
Nader should leap at this unique chance and make a historic deal with the Democrats -- not for a Cabinet post or some other tacky personal prize but a deal to make the United States more democratic.
Nader should offer to step aside if the Democrats pledge to implement "1-2-3 voting" in all 50 states by 2008.
Better known as Instant Runoff Voting, 1-2-3 voting would improve U.S. democracy and breathe new life into Nader's political future. A simple change in the voting method, 1-2-3 voting means that instead of voting for just one candidate, you can also pick a second choice and a third. When the ballots are counted, if your first choice doesn't have enough votes to win, your vote automatically goes to your second choice. For example, if you vote for Nader but he doesn't get enough votes to win, your vote goes to your second-choice pick, which might be, say, John Kerry.
This may seem like a minor change but 1-2-3 voting would be a big improvement over the current system.
First, the obvious reason. It would be impossible for Nader (or Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan or any other third-party candidate) to split the vote and spoil an election. If Nader doesn't have enough votes to win, his votes are simply given to each voter's second-choice candidate. No spoiler accusations, no hate mail, no death threats. End of story.
Second, voters would be free to support third-party candidates without "wasting" their votes outside the main contest. Currently, a vote for Nader means you get no say in the main contest of Bush versus Kerry, which is the biggest reason people don't support third-party candidates. Not only would 1-2-3 voting allow Nader to shed the spoiler image but it would also end the wasted vote problem, the biggest obstacle to third parties' growth and success.
Third, and perhaps most significantly, instead of being shut out of future races, Nader would be pressured to stay in, because he would draw voters who would rank the Democrats second. Nader's good image would be restored and his increased visibility would enrich and enliven our country's political debate. And it wouldn't be just Nader: All others outside the two big parties would finally be welcomed into U.S. politics. And voters would benefit from the wider political dialogue that more diversity would bring.
So Nader has a choice to make.
Will he take advantage of this opportunity? Or will he let it pass? Does he want to be remembered merely as the accused spoiler of two presidential elections? Or would he rather be known as a visionary who gave up his own campaign in order to make future politics more inclusive and future elections more democratic?
In all likelihood, Nader will never have more power to change the course of American history than he does right now. Let's tell him about it.
Peter G. Johnson lives in Seattle.
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