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It’s the Electoral System, Stupid!

Blair Bobier

George W. Bush lost the popular vote in the 2000 election and was installed as president by a questionable party-line vote of the U.S. Supreme Court despite the illegal and widespread disenfranchisement of African American voters in Florida perpetrated by Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris. Rather than challenging or investigating these blatant banana republic shenanigans, the press and the Democrats decided that the greatest failure of the American electoral system in history was the fault of one individual: Ralph Nader.

Now that Mr. Nader has again decided to seek the presidency, the media and the incredibly shrinking Democratic Party will overlook the obvious once more. The problem isn't having an accomplished consumer advocate or too many candidates in the race. No, here's the problem: It's the electoral system, stupid.

The problem is an electoral system which has allowed a president to take office with a minority of votes for the past three presidential elections in a row. The problem is an electoral system which forces voters to choose a candidate they really don't support because voting for the candidate of their choice would be a 'wasted vote.' The problem is an electoral system so unresponsive and irrelevant that it's boycotted by half of its potential users. Fortunately, for the citizens of the "world's greatest democracy," there are solutions.

One solution is the voting method which has come to be known as Instant Runoff Voting, or IRV. Used to elect the president of Ireland, a variety of office-holders in Australia and approved by San Francisco voters for city-wide use there, Instant Runoff Voting deftly deals with multiple candidates and ensures that the winner of an election is supported by a majority of voters. It works like this: instead of voting for just one candidate, voters instead rank the candidates in order of preference. Their first choice candidate is number one, the second choice number two and so on. If any candidate receives a majority of first choice votes, that candidate has won and the election is over. If, however, no candidate receives an absolute majority of first choice votes, then the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated from the race and the ballots are counted again. This "second" round of voting, or runoff, is conducted automatically. In the second round, the ballots cast for the eliminated candidate are scanned for their second choice votes and are awarded to the remaining candidates. This process of eliminating the last place candidate and recounting the ballots continues until one candidate receives a majority of the vote.

IRV is simple to use. All the voter has to do is rank the candidates in order of preference: 1,2,3. For local elections which currently require a runoff to produce a majority winner, IRV can save considerable amounts of money by eliminating the need for two separate and costly elections. If we were to use IRV for our presidential elections, the "spoiler" problem would be immediately eliminated and people would be free to vote for the candidate of their choice without concern that their vote might help elect a candidate they fear. IRV would encourage strong issue-oriented candidacies and broaden the debate in our country since candidates would not only have to seek first choice votes, but would have to appeal to voters supporting other candidates for their second choice votes. This would discourage negative campaigning since a candidate wouldn't be likely to attract the second choice votes they might need to win an election if they "went negative" on another candidate.

With growing third parties and rising registration numbers of independent voters, it is clear that Americans want more choices at the ballot box. For far too long, Americans have been force-fed a two party diet. This, some might say, has led to civil stagnation and a lack of innovation. With a spiraling national debt, high unemployment and shrinking civil liberties, we could use some creative solutions. And certainly a country which embraces hundreds of channels of satellite television, scores of breakfast cereals and thirty one flavors of ice cream can handle more than two choices in the voting booth.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Blair Bobier

Blair Bobier is an attorney and author who has spent several decades advocating for democracy in the U.S.  You can follow him on Twitter @BlairBobier.

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