Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Stop Election Spoilers

I came across this post a little while ago, and was impressed with how simple it could be to fix our broken political process to a large extent. Something is fundamentally wrong with a system in which someone who comes in second place in popular votes can still end up winning the electoral college and taking the highest political office in the world. Although I think that a term like 'spoiler' is bigoted because any candidate who does not win the election is equally deserving of the title, and because everyone has the right to take part in the process, I do still appreciate Steven Hills remarks on how easy it would be to make our process more democratic. It looks like voting for third-party 'spoilers' like Ralph Nader, Ron Paul, and Ross Perot is a good way of pressuring the two major parties to take action on reforming the process. Whether they win or lose, it supports real change and reform in truly progressive policies- free from corporate domination. So spoil on, guys!

With Ralph Nader in the race, Democrats are fuming and no doubt preparing to use the same legal tricks they used in 2004 to keep Nader off the ballot in many states. Republicans are cackling with glee.

But Republicans shouldn't cackle too loudly. They've also been hurt by the spoiler dilemma. In fact, the GOP lost control of the U.S. Senate due to Libertarian Party candidates in Montana, Washington, Missouri, Nevada and South Dakota spoiling things for Republicans. And many observers believe that Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush in 1992 only because Ross Perot drained away enough votes from Bush.

The problem is that the winners of our highest offices are not required to win a majority of the vote, either nationwide or in each state. Without a majority requirement, we can't be certain in a multi-candidate field that the winner will be the one preferred by the most voters.

How ridiculous: We can map the human genome, and send an astronaut to the moon, but we can't figure out a way to hold elections that guarantee the winner has a majority of the vote?

Naturally people are having flashbacks to the 2000 election, when George Bush beat Al Gore in Florida by only 538 votes, even though Bush lacked a majority of Florida's popular vote and Ralph Nader won 97,000 votes.

So much is at stake in a presidential election that we have to make sure that the winner this November can legitimately claim the presidency and try to heal a polarized nation. Yet despite the spoiler problem playing out in the 2000 presidential election and in various Senate races, neither Democratic nor Republican Party leaders have done anything to fix this defect of our electoral system.

Fortunately, it's not too late to address this problem. Since the U.S. Constitution delegates to states the method of choosing its Electoral College electors, each state legislature could pass into law - right now - a majority requirement for their state to ensure that whichever candidate wins, he or she will command support from a majority of that state's voters. We don't even need to do it in every state, since the race will boil down to a half-dozen battleground states, including the perennials Ohio and Florida.

Rather than asking Nader or any candidate to forego his democratic right to run for political office, the Democratic and Republican leaders could legislate this right now. What are they waiting for? Time is growing short, but it's in the public interest to protect majority rule.

One approach would be to adopt a two-round runoff system similar to that used in most presidential elections around the world and many southern primaries and local elections in the United States. A first round with all candidates could take place in mid-October. The top two finishers would face off in November, with the winner certain to have a majority.

But two elections would be expensive and time-consuming, both for taxpayers and candidates. So a better way would be for each state to adopt instant runoff voting (IRV), which accomplishes the goal of electing a winner with majority support, but getting it over in a single election. IRV allows voters to pick not only their first choice but also to rank a second and third choice at the same time, 1, 2, 3. If your first choice can't win, your vote goes to your second choice. The runoff rankings are used to determine a majority winner with only one election. Nader or Perot-type voters are liberated to vote for their favorite candidate without helping to elect their least favorite. IRV is used in Ireland and Australia for national elections, in San Francisco, Cary, N.C., and elsewhere for local elections, and in South Carolina, Arkansas and Louisiana for overseas voters.

Interestingly, IRV is supported by John McCain, Barack Obama and Ralph Nader.

Many people are criticizing Nader for risking a repeat of 2000, but only Democrats and Republicans have the power to change the rules of the game. We've seen this movie before and don't like how it might turn out. It's time for the Democrats and Republicans to produce a new ending by fashioning a fair, majoritarian system for electing our nation's highest offices

Originally published in the Philadelphia Daily News.

Steven Hill is director of the Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation and author of "10 Steps to Repair American Democracy" (


Michelle said...

So much good stuff comes out of the New America Foundation. I think that sounds wonderful- I'll have to pass this along!

Meaghan said...

I've voted for Nader in all three of my Presidential elections. I'd love to see a three party system. It's a dream that will likely never happen but I'll keep voting for Nader to show my support for the Green Party.

Jason said...

I haven't seen anything from the New American Foundation before. I'll have to check into it more. I just came across this article and thought it was such a simple solution.

I voted for Nader, too, Meaghan, and plan on doing so again. Considering that the two parties largely control who is included in debates and on the ballots, that they are the ones dividing up the voting districts, and also the corporate domination of both parties, etc., I think the US is only marginally democratic. US citizens actually have very little influence in the system. Until a third party candidate has enough popular support to break the stranglehold of the two parties, I don't see how any significant change will occur, regardless of who is in power.

Bridget said...

Republics typically are marginally democratic. This nation has always been marginally democratic. Can you think of a bright spot in its history when it was far more democratic? Nothing comes to mind.

Obama has hit a new high in small donors. That ought to count for something in increasing citizen influence. The good news is that we'll have a chance to see because he will be the next president.

I believe that the best way to effect change is to just take over one of the existing parties. Worked pretty good for the Neocons. The Democratic Party can be taken over by liberal democrats just as easily. Some of us are trying to do just that. We are supporting congressional campaigns for more and better Democrats. That you don't feel that you have room to operate in the Democratic Party is very confusing to me.

Obama will support spending more on infrastructure and new sources of energy than any candidate in 50 years. I say, let's not go around trying to tear down the military industrial complex, but let's first get an appetite for spending money on our own self interests. Once we get hooked on new roads, new rail, and new power then maybe we can bring ourselves to spend a little less on the war machine.


Bessie said...

I agree with Richard. If there's anything I've come to appreciate since I actually moved to the States is the importance of a 2 strong party system. I also remember while in Germany, elections took so long and were so complicated because of their multiparty system. But I do understand there are states that work just fine that way. Now, in my experience working with the Democratic Party in Utah and in Maryland is that this is an inclusive party. We are composed of different people with different stances. It is our responsibility (us as young people) to keep Obama in check and make sure he will keep listening and responding to us. This is why it is so important to be an active citizen. Let's work within the party to bring change.

Jason said...

My comments were really about changing the system, which I think is something that everyone should be interested in, regardless of party affiliation. I am sure that change can come about from within the parties, and I really hope that it does, but it seems to me that the two-parties are actually preventing significant change of the system more than promoting it. I just don't think that trying to change a party in order to change the process is the only way or necessarily the best way.

Although both parties heavily market themselves as opposing one another on what they label the core issues, it just seems to me that most of the differences are merely cosmetic. Most of the differences are only theoretical ones that amount to very little when put into practice. Both parties are a big disappointment to me for not living up to the image that they sell to the public. Even when Democrats took over and controlled congress, they did very little of what they promised they would to curb Bush's lunacy.

I can respect people agreeing with either one of the parties (although i have a harder time understanding someone supporting the republicans at this point), and working to change them, but I have a hard time respecting the bullying and lawsuits by the major parties to prevent other parties from their right to take part in the process as well. And, I have a hard time seeing how we are any better off defending a system that allows systematic disenfranchisement of voters, and doesn't even rely on some of the most basic democratic principles that one would expect- like a majority of the popular vote determining who holds the highest political office in the world.

If the Democratic party really does step up and enact policies (not merely give them verbal support until their corporate donors reign them in) then I will be glad to support them wholeheartedly. But, it seems to me that if you look at major reforms- like women's or civil rights- outsiders campaigned for years previously before the major parties finally realized that they were in for trouble if they didn't get on board and adopt the policy. So, I guess I just don't see how breaking the stranglehold of two-party domination to allow outsider parties more involvement could do anything but make it more likely that actual representation of the public will occurs- and faster than if we have to wait for the major parties to eventually face the choice of continuing to uphold the status quo or face losing their position. I think the incredibly low voter turnout in the US is a good indication of how few Americans feel they are adequately represented by the two parties. Give some other people a real chance to compete in the elections, take away some of the political influence of corporations and give it back to the people, and then we will see real change that you can believe in.