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Nader Enters the Race

Marissa Babin // Published March 6, 2008 in The Harvard Independent
Ralph Nader just announced that he is running for president. On NBC’s Meet the Press, Nader said he would “shift the power from the few to the many” and help “people feeling locked out, shut out, marginalized and disrespected.” The candidacy of Nader, an independent who has run for president several times before, raises questions about how fair and democratic America’s voting system really is.

Nader first ran for president in 1992 as a write-in candidate in both the Democratic and Republican primaries.He ran as a Green Party candidate in 1996 and again in 2000, when he won 2.7 percent of the national vote. He ran once more in 2004 as an independent, only winning 0.3 percent of the vote.

Among the issues Nader lists on his website, VoteNader.org, are single payer health insurance, a reduced military budget, a carbon pollution tax, a crackdown on corporate crime, and the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, which limits the power of labor unions.

Because of his liberal platform, Nader is far more likely to take votes away from the Democratic candidate than the Republican one, causing Democrats to resent his numerous tries for the presidency and to blame him for Al Gore’s loss to George W. Bush in 2000.

Republicans have gone so far as to donate money to Nader’s campaign. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, nearly one-tenth of the people who gave $1000 or more to Nader in 2004 also gave money to Republican causes.

The quirks that third-party candidates introduce in presidential elections are an inevitable result of the voting system that our country has used since its founding. America’s method of choosing a president is simple: whoever gets the most votes wins. There are complicating factors, of course, such as the Electoral College and the primaries. But our system can be classified as a plurality voting system — one in which each person votes for one candidate. Plurality voting may very well be the simplest method, but is it not the only one, nor is it the fairest.

Among the greatest of the disadvantages of our system is tactical voting. People who truly prefer a third-party candidate feel pressured to vote for one of the two most popular candidates for fear that their vote will be wasted. The media has great power to shape which candidates become popular, and people may assume that candidates who enter a race late will never achieve great popularity, a prediction that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Candidates who are not considered popular face pressure to drop out of the race for fear that they will take votes away from similar candidates and help candidates from the opposite end of the political spectrum. Thus, according to Duverger’s Law, plurality voting will eventually result in a two-party system.

Having only two parties severely limits the options available to voters. Citizens who have a different opinion on an issue than either party have no way of expressing their views through the electoral process.

Today’s America is dangerously close to a pure two-party system. When I voted in this year’s primaries, there were five types of ballots available, but the staff acted as though there were only two, asking each voter whether he or she wanted a Democratic or Republican ballot. Sure, there are usually a lot of third-party candidates in each presidential election, but most of them receive no media attention, and none of them are considered to have a serious chance of winning.

Other electoral methods are available that would give voters more choice than the one we use. Some countries, most notably France, hold runoff elections. Under this system, each voter casts a vote for his or her favorite candidate as in plurality voting. However, runoff voting includes a second round, in which the top two candidates from the first round face off.

Two-round systems enable people to vote for their favorite candidate in the first round, no matter how obscure that candidate is, without worrying that their vote will be wasted or help their least favorite candidate. Then, in the second round, voters choose between the two most popular candidates.

Instant runoff voting, the method used in UC elections at Harvard, is similar to runoff voting, but with only one round of ballots. Voters rank their choices in order of preference. If one candidate receives a true majority of first-place votes, that candidate wins. Otherwise, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated, and that candidate’s first-place votes are transferred to whomever each voter ranked second. This process continues, with one candidate being eliminated in each round of ballot-counting, until a candidate has a majority.

Instant runoff voting eliminates many of the problems of plurality voting. Because each person’s vote goes to the candidate next on their list if their first choices are eliminated, people can express their true preferences. For example, if instant runoff voting was used in 2000, someone who liked Nader the best and then Gore could rank Nader first and Gore second, without having to worry that their vote would help Bush win. Instant runoff voting means that people don’t have to worry about wasting their votes or helping their enemies.

Additionally, instant runoff voting is more efficient than runoff voting because it involves one round of voting instead of two. Taxpayers would save on administrative costs, and candidates would not need to spend as much money and time campaigning.

Nader’s presidential bids have drawn attention to the problems of third-party candidates in a plurality voting system. Instant runoff voting provides citizens with more choices than plurality voting and is more efficient than two-round elections. Instead of criticizing Nader’s decision to run, the American people should take a closer look at how our two-party system restricts voters’ options and hinders democracy. America should give instant runoff voting a chance.

Marissa Babin ’11 (mbabin@fas) questions how fair and democratic America’s voting system really is.