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It's Time to Bring Majority Rule to the American Election Process

Blair Bobier // Published July 5, 2009 in Richmond Times-Dispatch
Virginia's Democratic gubernatorial primary made all sorts of national news last month. The more typical stories equated former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe's defeat with the end of the Clinton era. Yet, despite the abundance of coverage, one significant detail has been left out of the generally agreed upon "story" about Virginia's recent gubernatorial primary -- the losing candidates received more votes than the winner.

To be fair, Creigh Deeds did, in fact, roll up an impressive primary victory. But to be just as fair, his two opponents won more votes than he did. Together, Terry McAuliffe and Brian Moran won just over 50 percent of the vote; Deeds, a bit under 50 percent. Is this splitting hairs? Maybe -- but it's more like splitting votes.

Whenever a majority of voters casts ballots for losing candidates --and it happens far more often than we care to admit -- should be a time of thoughtful reflection in the "world's greatest democracy."

Perhaps, because of the circumstances, the Deeds-McAuliffe-Moran result isn't that shocking. Deeds, after all, almost won a majority, and he outpolled his nearest competitor by more than 20 points. But what if, say, Deeds had won the three-way race with only 37 percent of the vote and 63 percent of voters supported losing candidates?

That's exactly what happened in Tazewell County, in a Board of Supervisors primary held on the same day as the gubernatorial election. Although the Tazewell race certainly didn't draw the national press, its winner, David R. Woodard II, joins the ranks of George W. Bush (2000) and Bill Clinton (1992 and 1996) as candidates who were elected by a minority of voters.

Democracy means a lot of things to a lot of different people; still, most Americans would probably equate it with majority rule. But majority rule is not a given in this country. Many elections are decided by a simple plurality vote, meaning that the winner doesn't need a majority of votes, just more votes than any one else receives.

Ensuring a majority vote can be done with runoff elections. Runoffs, these days, tend to come in two flavors. One is the two-round runoff: All candidates compete in the first round and the top two vote-getters proceed to a second election -- usually held months later. The other flavor, an instant runoff, eliminates the need for two separate elections by determining a majority winner in just one election.

Instant Runoff Voting (or IRV) simulates the traditional two-round runoff by asking voters for their back-up choices, in case their preferred candidate doesn't make the cut. Voters rank the candidates in order of preference -- 1, 2, 3 -- and if their preferred candidate doesn't make it to the final round, their vote counts for their second choice.

Instant Runoff Voting has a number of advantages over two-round runoffs, some more obvious than others. Wherever IRV can combine two rounds of balloting into one and eliminate unnecessary elections, it can save cash-strapped municipalities some serious money. Elections don't come cheap. One shudders to think of the millions and millions of dollars that Virginia's taxpayers just shelled out to draw a scant 6 percent of registered voters to the polls.

IRV can boost this kind of anemic voter turnout. Negative campaigns, as a rule, drive down voter turnout. Instant Runoff Voting, on the other hand, tends to encourage more civil, positive campaigning, which draws more voters to the polls. That's because, with IRV, candidates have an incentive to make nice with their opponents: they know that often they can't put together majority support without the backing (or No. 2 rankings) of at least some of their opponents' supporters.

By all accounts, McAuliffe and Moran spent time pounding each other in an attempt to carve up the very same constituency. Wouldn't it have made more sense for them to cooperate -- especially since their party needs to unite once the primary is over?

It may sound far-fetched, but that kind of thing actually happens in places using IRV. News reports -- from San Francisco's initial use of IRV in 2004 to Burlington, Vermont's, 2009 mayoral election -- confirm that IRV improves the tenor of political campaigns.

Americans are quick to challenge the legitimacy of foreign elections as demonstrated by our current preoccupation with the results from Iran. We would do well to take a good look at how ours are conducted, and see if our practices mirror our lofty ideals.

Blair Bobier is deputy director of the New America Foundation's Political Reform Program.