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Sierra Magazine
Lay of the Land

Voting for the Planet | Lest We Forget | No More Spoilers | Now, Mad Deer | Bold Strokes | Updates

No More Spoliers:
A better way at the ballot box

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 conscience.

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 Knowles.

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.

Paul Rauber


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