Last November's election had the unfortunate effect of creating a rift between
environmentalist supporters of Al Gore and those of Ralph Nader. With the major-party
candidates neck and neck in a handful of swing states, Gore backers claimed (with some
justification) that a vote for Nader was a vote for Bush. Nader rejected the spoiler
label, but many of his supporters were anguished by the political cost of their votes of
It didn't have to be that way. With a simple change to our electoral process, Nader
could have easily doubled his numbers and made a powerful statement about the environment,
trade issues, and corporate influence without sabotaging fellow environmentalist Al Gore.
That change is called instant-runoff voting.
In this system-already being used to elect the president of Ireland, the senate in
Australia, and the mayor of London-voters rank candidates 1-2-3, in order of their
preference. A candidate winning a majority of first preferences is, of course, elected. If
no one reaches that mark, however, the candidate with the fewest votes drops out, and the
second choices of his or her voters are then distributed to the remaining candidates. This
process is repeated until one candidate gains more than 50 percent.
In last November's election, instant runoff would have worked like this in New
Hampshire, for example: Gore received 47 percent of the vote, Bush 48, Nader 4, and three
minor candidates the other 1. Let's say that all of the three minor candidates'
second-choice votes went to Bush, giving him 49 percent. Next Nader would drop out, and
four out of five of his second-preference votes would boost Gore over the top.
Without such a system, the growing numbers of independent voters and third parties
ensure the current trend toward political leaders elected by plurality (that is, the
greatest number of votes, but not necessarily a majority). In the 1992 and 1996
presidential elections, only a quarter of all states were won by a clear majority.
"There's nothing in the Constitution that ordains we should have plurality
voting," says John Anderson, who polled 7 percent of the national vote as a
third-party presidential candidate in 1980. He is now president of the Center for Voting
and Democracy, which seeks to popularize voting reforms. Instant runoff, he says, would
also save third parties from their spoiler role of benefiting the majority party that they
have least in common with.
In his campaign in 1980, says Anderson, "the spoiler
charge definitely took its toll; I could have done two or three times as well if that
incubus had not been hovering over the race." As for Nader, beyond reaching the 5
percent of the vote needed for federal matching funds, he might even have garnered the 15
percent necessary for inclusion in future national debates.
An end to the spoiler effect should appeal equally to the major parties. In several
recent congressional races in New Mexico, for example, the Green vote threw races to
Republicans. And in Alaska's 1994 gubernatorial race, votes for Libertarian and Alaska
Independent Party candidates siphoned votes from Republicans, electing Democrat Tony
The Sierra Club Board of Directors recently voted "to support alternative
electoral methods that better reflect the diversity of public opinion," including
instant runoff. Shifting to instant runoff could be accomplished by state legislatures or
by popular referendum. Alaskans will vote on the issue in 2002, and Vermont and New Mexico
are also considering the system. The main opposition, says Anderson, comes from
"institutional inertia." If we can get past that, voters may finally be able to
vote their hearts without fear of bringing on their worst nightmare.