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One Easy Solution for Democracy

It's rare I see a simple solution to an agonizing public issue. So here's one I want to share. We are running up to a nail-biter of a national election (and lots of pivotal state and local races, too). Passions are running high. Among my friends, and maybe yours too, a topic that can spoil a picnic is third-party candidates.

No one gets the adrenaline flowing faster among progressives than Ralph Nader. Advocates love his take-no-prisoners articulation of the greed and duplicity so rampant among our corporate and government leaders. But others, many of whom once revered the corporate crusader, are now apoplectic about his potential to hand President Bush a second term and thereby lock in an extremist agenda that undermines our country on every front.

When you hear that groups like Citizens for a Sound Economy, headed by former House Republican leader Dick Armey, are working frantically to get Nader on ballots in key battleground states, you know something is amiss.

What's amiss is our electoral structure, which allows a candidate to win without a majority of the votes. But it doesn't have to be this way. There's a simple solution that doesn't take a constitutional amendment. This reform can be adopted by states—where innovation is a whole lot easier than at the national level. It's called IRV—Instant Runoff Voting.

Not sure what IRV is? Confused about just how it works? I've been confused, so I checked into it. Here's what I learned.

Under IRV, you don't just vote for one candidate. You rank your preferences among those running—first choice, second choice, etc. So let's apply this to an imaginary election to see how it works.

Suppose a state we'll call “Swing State” has just three candidates on the ballot—Bush, Kerry, and Nader. Its 5.5 million voters cast their votes as follows:

Bush: 2.6 million

Kerry: 2.5 million

Nader 0.4 million

Under our current rules, Bush wins, taking every one of Swing State's electoral college votes. But he didn't get a majority. Under Instant Runoff Voting, if no one won a majority of first-choice votes, Nader would be eliminated because he got the fewest votes. Now Nader voters' next choices are counted; let's assume 300,000 chose Kerry as their second choice, and 100,000 chose Bush.

Here are the results under IRV:

Kerry: 2.8 million (2.5 million first-choice votes plus 0.3 million who had first voted for Nader).

Bush: 2.7 million (2.6 million first-choice votes plus 0.1 million who had first voted for Nader).

Kerry now wins a true majority. It didn't take an expensive second election to determine the majority, and nearly half a million people got to voice their preferences for a third-party candidate without jeopardizing the chances of their second-favorite candidate.

Instead of feeding the acrimony about Nader being a “spoiler,” why not push for a real solution? If Democrats want Greens and other independents to swallow hard and vote for Kerry, what will they give in return? Pushing for IRV is an obvious way to resolve the agony in the long term.

Ireland uses IRV to chose the president, London to elect the mayor, Australia to choose the House of Representatives. In November, San Franciscans will elect their city officials using IRV. Many states and localities have legislation pending on some aspect of IRV (see www.fairvote.org).

IRV won't always favor Democrats. In the 1992 election, under IRV, Bush Sr. might have beaten Clinton if Perot voters had been able to vote their second choice.

IRV is not about helping a particular party. It's about creating a vibrant democracy—one with lots of voices, lots of debate, and lots of people turning out to vote their true preferences. It's about taking one more step on that long road to becoming an advanced democracy.

Thanks to all of you who wrote me about how you are using my “10 Ways to Change U.S. History” column (YES!, Summer 2004). Doctors put copies of it in their waiting rooms. College faculty handed it out in classrooms along with voter registration materials. People e-mailed it to friends; some posted it on websites. Even some Canadians plan to apply the “10 ways” to their own elections. I am thrilled with this evidence of people's renewed commitment to democracy. If you missed this column you can find it at www.yesmagazine.org.

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