The equivocal showing of Green Party presidential candidate Ralph
Nader--falling far short of the 5 percent threshold for federal
funds and winning enough votes in Florida to send the election into
turmoil--poses hard questions about a post-election strategy for
a progressive electoral movement, particularly with Nader hinting
at more spoilers to come from a nascent Green Party that he promises
to keep building.
On the positive side, Nader was on the ballot in 45 states, raised
more than $7 million, drew national attention to the progressive
critique of the Clinton-Gore administration and inspired tens of
thousands of enthusiasts in rallies in cities across the country.
But ultimately, under the pressures of the spoiler dilemma posed
by our winner-take-all system, Nader's support drained away on Election
Day. The Washington Post estimated that more than 5 million
would-be Nader supporters voted for a major party candidate after
wrestling with the spoiler dilemma.
In reflecting on the Nader campaign, it could not be more obvious
that there is one
overriding obstacle to third-party candidacies: our winner-take-all
voting practices that preserve the two-party political system. Voting
system reform in the form of proportional representation for legislative
elections and instant runoff voting (IRV) for executive elections
must be a cornerstone of the movement to restore electoral democracy.
Is this what democracy looks
AFP PHOTO/POOL/GREG LOVETT/PALM BEACH POST/
Given progressives' frustration with the rightward tilt of Clinton-Gore,
the very debate about Nader's candidacy revealed a serious flaw
in our antiquated voting practices: Voting for your favorite candidate
can lead to the election of your least favorite candidate.
Fortunately Australia, England and Ireland have implemented IRV.
These nations share our tradition of electing candidates by plurality
(where the top vote-getter wins, even with less than a majority)
but now use IRV for most important elections. Mary Robinson was
elected president of Ireland by IRV, and Labor Party maverick "Red
Ken" Livingstone was elected mayor of London. The Australian legislature
has been elected by IRV for decades.
Here's how IRV works: At the polls, voters select their favorite
candidate, but also indicate on the same ballot their second runoff
choice and subsequent runoff choices. If a candidate receives a
majority of first choices, the election is over. If not, the candidate
with the fewest votes is eliminated, and in the runoff round each
ballot counts for the top-ranked candidate still in the race. Rounds
of counting continue until there is a majority winner. It's like
a runoff election, but without voters needing to return to the polls.
Imagine this year's presidential race with IRV: In July, Nader
surged to nearly 10 percent in national polls. He drew interest
from the United Auto Workers, Teamsters and leading environmental
organizations. Recognizing the spoiler problem, however, they and
many progressive constituencies grudgingly endorsed Gore. But with
IRV, Nader would not have worn the spoiler tag, and could have mobilized
a progressive constituency and even gained access to the presidential
debates. Progressives in Florida and elsewhere could have ranked
Nader as their first choice and Gore as their backup runoff choice.
Instead of waking up on November 8 with an electoral hangover, they
might have discovered that their runoff choice had boosted Gore
to victory--but with a caveat that said: "Handle with care. Watch
your step on trade, political reform and environmental policies."
The increased support for Nader and attention to progressive issues
could have shifted the political center and helped Democrats win
those few extra seats necessary to retake Congress. Rather than
fracture a potential majority vote for one party, IRV could have
helped forge that majority through mobilizing and informing new
voters. The energies of young activists, some of whose belief in
electoral politics no doubt has been shaken by Nader's weak showing,
would have been hugely rewarded.
Once passions subside after this presidential election, progressive
Democrats and Green Party activists need to think seriously about
forging alliances to usher in electoral reform. In all 50 states,
IRV could be implemented right now for all federal elections, including
the presidential race, as well as state and local elections, without
changing a single federal law or amending the Constitution. Already,
IRV is gaining support in various states, particularly when it solves
a problem for a major party--as in New Mexico, where the Greens
have siphoned votes from the Democrats. Advocates in Alaska--including
leading Republicans--have turned in the requisite signatures to
place IRV on the 2002 statewide ballot. Vermont also holds promise,
with an impressive coalition supporting IRV for statewide elections.
And there are a growing number of opportunities for city and state
campaigns for IRV. In other words, progressive Democrats and Green
Party activists should be exploring ways to work together to enact
voting system reform.
But to gain a real foothold in power, IRV is not enough. Fair representation
demands scrapping winner-take-all rules in legislative races in
favor of proportional representation, as used in most established
democracies. With proportional representation, a political party
winning 10 percent of the popular vote wins 10 percent of the legislative
seats--instead of nothing. Representing more of us would break open
political monopolies and give political and racial minorities realistic
chances to win their fair share all across the country. With proportional
representation, the fight for control of the House of Representatives
this year would have been a national election, rather than the piecemeal,
money-driven campaign that took place in 20 or 30 swing districts.
Other political reforms, notably public financing of elections
and fair ballot-access laws, are of critical importance to making
democracy work. But these other reforms cannot address the spoiler
dilemma, and they can't change the fact that winner-take-all elections
shut out political and racial minorities, since representation is
limited to those candidates and parties able to portray themselves
as being all things to approximately half the voters. Only voting
system reform will fundamentally level the playing field.
The power of IRV and proportional representation have dawned on
many Nader backers, particularly younger activists and Greens who
could be the backbone of a progressive electoral movement. Nader
himself backs IRV and proportional representation, but seems confused
about their fundamental importance to multiparty democracy. Bewilderingly,
he continues to tout a "None of The Above" voting option, which
does little to build a multiparty system. That raises crucial questions:
Will a Nader-led electoral movement ignore the real barriers presented
by winner-take-all? Or will it use its modest clout and resources
to work for multiparty democracy founded on the bedrock of proportional
representation for legislative elections and instant runoff voting
for executive races?
The Nader candidacy showed a glimpse of the power of a lasting
multiparty politics. But its limitations illuminate the critical
need to reform winner-take-all elections. The recent election results
clarify, once and for all, the direction a progressive electoral
movement must take. Let's start the legwork necessary to liberate
voters from a choice between "spoilers" and "lesser evils." It's
time to change the voting system that spoils the game for all of
Steven Hill and Rob Richie of the Center for Voting
and Democracy (www.fairvote.org)
are co-authors of Reflecting All of Us (Beacon Press).