Electoral Reform: Instant Runoffs

Perhaps the time has come for real electoral reform.

Calls for new campaign finance regulations, national registration and balloting standards, independent election commissions, and so on, reveal widespread unease about the efficacy of the way we currently choose our representatives. But none of these proposed changes will address a fundamental flaw in our system that by itself is responsible for much of its dysfunction.

Under the current winner-take-all method of awarding offices, a candidate can win who not only is not the first choice of the majority of voters, but who may even be one whom the majority loathes.

In the election recently endured, millions of Democrats, and I would guess a fair number of Republicans, voted for a candidate they disliked out of fear the other guy was worse. Make a voter terrified enough, and he will vote against his common sense, his political wishes, even his self-interest, as long as he can be convinced that in so doing he is rescuing the republic from calamity. Winner-take-all campaigns devolve inevitably into efforts to paint opponents as traitors, deviants, soldiers in Satan's army. Who wants to cast a vote for Lucifer?

All-or-nothing political races become arguments over personality not policy. The candidate who makes the error of addressing issues discovers in the next news cycle that any reference to policy specifics is seen by opponents as no more than an invitation to speculate about his intelligence, integrity, sanity, patriotism and parentage.

While "counting all the votes" is fine as far as it goes, it will not correct the fundamental flaw at the core of winner-take-all.

Currently, participants in the electoral process are made to feel they must choose between endorsing the lesser of two evils or wasting their ballots on non-standard-issue candidates. In the last election, almost the sole reason offered on behalf of John Kerry was that he was the only aspirant who could save us from wicked, bumptious George Bush, and the president won reelection by relentlessly attacking the senator's patriotism and judgement.

Since they had "no chance of winning," articulate and popular third party candidates like David Cobb, Michael Badnarik and Ralph Nader -- who clearly envision a very different America than Kerry and Bush -- were prohibited from retailing their ideas anywhere but in academic journals and junior college PoliSci classes. No presidential debates for these fellows, lest it lead to the intrusion into the campaign of ideas that the two major parties would rather have citizens not worry their pretty little heads over. Bush and Kerry were thus relieved of any duty to discuss their differences on Iraq, say, or what they planned to do about health insurance or social security or the deficit, and could proceed unimpeded to the more manly and productive work of bashing each other.

The result in the short term is that on January 22 Bush will return to office as the least popular newly reelected incumbent since Harry S Truman. A Gallup poll conducted for CNN and USA Today found Bush's approval rating this week at 49%, less than a majority and 10 to 20 points lower than any president at this point in his tenure since 1948.

In the long term, the legitimacy of democracy is undermined in the eyes of a populace that rightly wonders whether it is even possible in this country to conduct elections with intergrity.

In many parts of the democratic world, however, and even in a handful of localities in the United States, a voting adaptation called instant runoff is demonstrating that there is another way to run elections, a method that is fairer, that more accurately captures the intentions of voters, and that is far more civilized than the current system.

Instant runoffs are simple and effective. Instead of choosing one candidate, the voter ranks the contestants in order of preference. If no one wins a majority on the first tabulation, the ranking is used for a series of instant runoffs. After each round of counting that fails to deliver a victor, the lowest vote-getter is eliminated. When a voter's first choice is dropped, the next name on his list gets his vote, and so on, until one candidate receives a majority. In this way, the winner is on the ballots of the majority of voters.

Not only would an instant runoff assure that the eventual winner enjoyed the widest possible support, in the contest itself negative campaigning would have to take a back seat to fair-minded discussion of policy differences. No longer would the advantage go to the side that was most ruthless at muddying the other team.While it would still be possible to destroy a candidate by innuendo, doing so would no longer hold the advantage that it does now.

As Steve Hill of the Center for Voting and Democracy said in the wake of a recent instant runoff for San Francisco county supervisor, candidates don't need to demonize opponents. "Now here you have an example where instead candidates who are of similar political background are striving to find common ground instead of attacking each other."

In a race decided by instant runoff, the ideal post position may be as everyone's second choice.

Instant runoff voting would be more easily achieved than many other proposed improvements -- campaign finance reform, for instance, and unlike the latter, the effects would be immediate, unambiguous and profound.

For more information on the race in the Bay Area, please go to "San Francisco's first use of Instant Runoff Voting is Big Success" <http://www.fairvote.org/sf/>.

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