Observers of the success of Green parties overseas—now firmly entrenched in most of Europe and growing in Latin America and elsewhere—might wonder why Greens have so little electoral power in the U.S. There is one simple explanation: American electoral rules make it nearly impossible for new parties to succeed or even sustain themselves. In contrast to nearly every other well-established democracy, we elect all state and national offices through winner-take-all elections in which 51 percent of voters win 100 percent of power. Succeeding as a third party here is like trying to start a business that can make money only once it has the largest share of its market—winning 5 percent, 10 percent, or even 30 percent of the market would mean nothing.
Equally problematic are our “plurality election rules,” in which the winner doesn't need to have half the votes to win. That means that a strong third-party challenger like Ralph Nader in 2000 can fracture the majority vote, leading to “spoiler” accusations and making it hard to get into debates and gain support from natural allies. Would-be third party supporters can feel they lose no matter what they do.
A growing core of reformers is seeking to change the rules and allow voters better choices. They've recognized that we need to have viable small parties to keep the major parties honest and to transform power. They've seen that advances can be made in colleges and cities as well as states. Here are four key reforms and resources for change:
Full/Proportional Representation: Used in most established democracies, full representation is based on the principle that the majority should earn the right to decide, but a minority can earn representation. Thus, 60 percent of votes will elect six of 10 seats rather than all the seats, while 10 percent of the vote elects one seat rather than none. After adopting full representation in 2000, Amarillo, Texas, went from having an all-white school board to one with four whites, two Latinas and one African American.
Instant Runoff Voting: Addresses the “spoiler” problem. Voters select their top choice, but also rank their second and third choices. If anyone receives a majority of first choices, that candidate is elected. If not, the last-place candidate is defeated; the second choices of those who voted for the last-place candidate are then counted in a runoff round. This process continues until one candidate receives a majority. With modern voting equipment, all of the counting and recounting can take place easily. Used for decades in Australia and Ireland, instant runoff voting was adopted by San Francisco voters in 2002, and instant runoff voting legislation was introduced in 20 states in 2003.
Fusion: Once common in most states, fusion candidates accept the nomination of more than one party. Thus, for example, a candidate could receive some votes as a Democrat and some votes as a Green. For determining the outcome, these votes are combined. Fusion gives minor parties a means to bargain with major parties in order to affect policy and to elect their own candidates. Voters can better clarify why they're supporting a major party candidate. Fusion is practiced widely in New York, where minor parties are an important part of the state's political fabric. Efforts are underway to adopt it in Massachusetts and Montana.
Ballot Access: Most states make it hard for small parties to qualify candidates for the ballot. This forces parties to spend a great deal just to have a chance to make their case to voters—one of many direct and indirect subsidies our government supplies to major parties. As more third parties contest elections, many are calling for easier access to the ballot.
* Center for Voting and Democracy focuses on full representation and instant runoff voting across the U.S., 301/270-4616, PO Box 60037, Washington, DC 20039
* New Majority Education Fund focuses on getting fusion voting adopted and used in various states. , 406/544-0340, 1316 Howell Street, Missoula, MT 59802
* Ballot Access News is a monthly newsletter that tracks ballot access, debate access, and other reforms affecting non-major party candidates. , 415/922-9779, PO Box 470296, San Francisco, CA 94147