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Plurality voting rule is the real election spoiler

John B. Anderson // Published October 29, 2009 in Baltimore Sun

The latest polls show Chris Daggett securing between 14 percent and 18 percent of the vote in his independent bid for governor of New Jersey. Daggett seeks to offer a new voice that does not echo the predictable ideologies of the two major parties, just as I did when challenging Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan for the presidency in 1980. But as with most independent candidates, Daggett faces accusations of "spoiling" the election.

The true spoiler in this race and any other election with one winner and more than two candidates is a plurality voting rule in which candidates can win without a majority of votes. In plurality voting, third-party and independent candidates too often are vilified for daring to offer a new choice, and their would-be supporters are pressured to select the lesser of two evils instead of the greatest of their hopes.

A straightforward solution has gained impressive steam across America: instant runoff voting (IRV).

By allowing voters to rank their choices and then simulating a traditional majority runoff, IRV both frees voters to consider darkhorse candidates and assures election of the candidate with the most support.

Recent American history is littered with elections marred by plurality voting, hurting Democrats and Republicans alike. In 1992, Ross Perot took 19 percent, drawing from George H.W. Bush as he lost by 6 percent to Bill Clinton. In 2000, Al Gore lost Florida and the presidency to George W. Bush by just 537 votes even as Ralph Nader won 97,488 votes. Minnesota's recent U.S. Senate seat recount overlooked the 16 percent of votes cast for non-major party candidates.

Voters of course are plurality voting's real victim. It forces too many of us to settle for a lesser choice when fearing the majority will split its vote. But without independent voices, American elections often revert to tired slogans and negative attacks rather than debates about innovative ideas that the major parties won't touch. With so much dissatisfaction with the major parties, it is more important than ever that independent voices be welcomed rather than demonized.

With IRV in place in New Jersey, voters would be able to rank their preferences first, second and third. Daggett supporters, for example, could rank him first, and then indicate their back-up runoff choices in case he lost by finishing last. Through the automatic runoff mechanism of IRV, a candidate with true majority support in the final choice between the top two candidates would win. There would be no spoilers and no one would have to compromise their vote.

There's nothing complicated about IRV: If you and your friends have ever reached a consensus about where to go for dinner, you already understand the dynamic behind IRV sometimes you settle for a second choice. And as for the logistics, a one-time upgrade of voting equipment and good, straightforward ballot instructions for voters do the trick.

IRV keeps growing in popularity. Backed by such leaders as President Obama and Sen. John McCain, IRV will be used for coming elections in San Francisco, Oakland and Memphis. The British prime minister has pledged to hold a national referendum to adopt IRV in the United Kingdom. Even the Oscar for Best Picture this winter will go to a film selected by IRV.

Rather than rest on an entrenched duopoly that limits choice and accountability, major parties should defend their positions at the polls, on their merits, against all competing ideas and philosophies. This is why third party and independent candidates are a vibrant and essential part of our political system. If the two major parties fail to address the needs of our nation, they should face electoral consequences.

The ultimate winner of New Jersey's gubernatorial race is unlikely to receive a majority this year, and the true consensus choice may never be known. But it doesn't have to be that way forever. Implementing instant runoff voting would improve our politics and strengthen our democracy.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Former Rep. John B. Anderson of Illinois was an independent candidate for president in 1980 and serves on the board of FairVote, a nonpartisan electoral reform organization. Readers may write to him at: FairVote, 6930 Carroll Avenue, Suite 610, Takoma Park, Md. 20912.