Sunday, July 22 , 2018, 5:29 pm | Fair 77º


Steven Hill: A Way Out of the Spoiler Dilemma

Instant runoff voting offers a better way to ensure majority rule. Why aren't we using it at the presidential level?

With the Academy Awards over, it’s time for a new year of thrilling cinematic chills. How about: "Spoiler Dilemma, Take Three," starring Ralph Nader?{mosimage}

It’s like a horror movie that keeps coming back. Once again, the audience is on edge. Democrats are fuming, no doubt preparing to use the same legal tricks they used in 2004 to keep Nader off the ballot in many states. Meanwhile, Republicans are cackling with glee.

But Republicans shouldn’t cackle too loudly. They also have been hurt by the spoiler dilemma. In fact, Republicans lost control of the Senate because of Libertarian Party candidates spoiling races in Montana, South Dakota and Washington. Many observers believe that Democratic challenger Bill Clinton beat then-President George Bush in 1992 only because independent candidate Ross Perot drained away enough votes from Bush.

The problem is that the winners of our highest offices are not required to win a majority of the vote, either nationwide or in each state. Without a majority requirement, we can’t be certain in a multicandidate field that the winner will be the one preferred by the most voters. That’s the premise for this horror movie repeat.

A lot is at stake to make sure that the winner in November can legitimately claim the presidency and try and heal a polarized nation. Yet despite the spoiler problem playing out in the 2000 presidential election and in various Senate races, neither Democratic nor Republican party leaders have done anything to fix this defect of our electoral system. So our movie is a tragedy besides.

Fortunately, it’s not too late to fix this problem. Since the Constitution delegates to states the method of choosing their Electoral College electors, each state legislature could pass into law — right now — a majority requirement for their state to ensure that whichever candidate wins, she or he will command support from a majority of that state’s voters.

We don’t even need to do it in every state, since the race will boil down to a half-dozen battleground states, including the perennials Florida and Ohio. Rather than asking Nader or any candidate to forego his democratic right to run for political office, Democratic and Republican leaders could become heroes in this unfolding tragic movie. What are they waiting for?

Time is growing short, but it’s in the public interest to protect majority rule. One approach would be to adopt a two-round runoff system similar to that used in most presidential elections around the world and many primaries and local elections in the United States. A first round with all candidates would take place in mid-October. The top two finishers would face off in November, with the winner certain to have a majority.

But two elections would be expensive and time-consuming, both for taxpayers and candidates. So a better way would be for each state to adopt instant runoff voting, which accomplishes the goal of electing a winner with majority support, but getting it over in a single election. The concept allows voters to pick not only their first choice but also to rank a second and third choice at the same time, 1, 2, 3. If your first choice can’t win, your vote goes to your second choice. The runoff rankings are used to determine a majority winner in one election. Nader- or Perot-type voters are liberated to vote for their favorite candidate without helping to elect their least favorite.

Instant runoff voting is used in Australia and Ireland for national elections; in San Francisco; Cary, N.C.; and elsewhere for local elections; and in Arkansas, Louisiana and South Carolina for overseas voters. Interestingly, instant runoff voting is supported by Nader and John McCain and Barack Obama.

Many people are criticizing Nader for risking a repeat of 2000, but only Democrats and Republicans have the power to change the rules of the game. We’ve seen this movie before and don’t like how it might turn out. It’s time for Democrats and Republicans to produce a new ending by fashioning a fair, majoritarian system for electing our nation’s highest offices.

Steven Hill is director of the New America Foundation‘s political reform program and author of 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy.

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