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Instant Runoff Voting: Solving the Nader Dilemma
Progressive Populist
by Nathan Newman
April 15, 2002

I spent a chunk of the 2000 election bitterly condemning Nader for dividing the progressive community and helping to elect George W. Bush as President

And I really wanted to vote for him.

This is the dilemma progressives face every time they face an election with a righteous candidate on the ballot, who threatens to siphon votes from a less ideal candidate, who is still better than a third alternative who is even worse. Your head knows the system is rigged, so you need to vote strategically, but your heart says go for the candidate saying the truth about corporate abuses of our democracy.

I say "heart" because I'm unpersuaded that progressives acting as spoilers "send a message" to Democrats to pay attention to their base, since candidates can just as easily look for votes to their right if votes on their left flank are undependable. As a Hollywood director once said, "if you want to send a message, send a telegram." Elections are about power and are played for keeps, as George W. shows everyday as he hands out goodies to corporate allies and seeks to appoint rightwing judges to the bench. So losing real power, even if it seems marginal at times, in pursuit of a pure message is just irresponsible. Worse, because different progressives line up on either side of the heart-mind line, such campaigns divide rather than united the left.

But in February, voters in San Francisco passed a reform at the ballot that promises to resolve this heart-mind electoral conflict if implemented nationally. On the same day, 51 out of 54 Vermont towns supported nonbinding resolutions calling for use of the reform in statewide elections.

The reform, called instant runoff and backed by the national Center for Voting and Democracy, is simple-- instead of voting for only one candidate, voters will be able to rank their choices from first to last. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, the candidate with the least votes will be dropped from the vote count. The second choice candidate of all those voting for the losing candidate will then receive those votes. If this does not create a winner, the process is repeated. The third choice of voters whose first and second choices have been eliminated are applied to remaining candidates, and so on, until a winner with the majority of the vote emerges.

Such a reform is significant for the city races it will effect in San Francisco where actual runoffs are often held between the top two vote-getters. The reform will save the expense of running a whole new election and avoid the low turnouts endemic in many runoff elections.

But at the state and national level where no runoffs are usually held at all, instant runoff would be a radical change, since it would assure for the first time that winning candidates actually had more support than their opponents, rather than allowing a candidate to squeak into office because opponents divide the alternative vote. We've had three Presidential elections where the winning candidate did not receive a majority of the vote with Bush Jr. of course not even receiving the plurality of votes in 2000.

For progressives, instant runoff systems would encourage unity rather than division around progressive primary and third party general election candidates. Vote totals for third party candidates would increase dramatically. Pragmatic voters could happily vote third party, knowing the "message" would be conveyed by their first choice of candidate, but electoral expediency would be guaranteed based on their second choice of candidate. And with higher voting totals for such third parties, their candidates will gain the credibility to actually push Democrats to third place in some races and even win office based on the second choice decisions of those more moderate Democratic voters.

One thing instant runoff voting will do is force the main candidates to treat third party candidates with more respect, since they will need the tacit alliances to encourage their voters to support them as their second choice. In fact, if a strong race by a third party candidate encourages higher turnout, a friendly allied candidate could even benefit from their presence in the race, since the increased turnout could translate into higher vote totals as a second choice by these new voters.

So can instant runoff be translated from city races in San Francisco to national elections? There is nothing in the US constitution preventing its use and new technology is making it increasingly easy to set up ballots using the system. If Nader and other spoiler candidacies on both the left and right have sent any message, it's been in convincing a number of mainstream politicians that our present electoral system is broken.

In Alaska, a statewide referendum will be held on the fall ballot to implement instant runoff voting for certain state races, largely supported by Republican activists who feel Democrats have snuck into office based on a divided conservative opposition. Conversely, in New Mexico where Green candidacies have helped elect Republicans to the governorship and Congress, Democrats have supported a constitutional amendment for instant runoff voting. Largely in response to the success of the Vermont Progressive Party, the organization of the only progressive independent in Congress Bernie Sanders, the Democratic governor Howard Dean has been supportive of instant runoff as well. U.S. Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-Illinois) has introduced legislation today creating incentives for states to adopt instant runoff voting for allocating electoral votes in their state. So the momentum for change is there.

In many ways, the greatest tragedy of the Nader campaign was that during the month after the 2000 election, when people were obsessing about hanging chads, Nader could have been barnstorming across the state and the nation advocating instant runoff voting as a solution that would have avoided the whole debacle in the first place. That was a golden opportunity missed to educate the public about the benefits of an instant runoff system.

But state by state organizing is accelerating and if the victories in San Francisco and Vermont are any indication, instant runoff is a reform that is becoming a top choice of activists and voters.

Check out this site for more information on instant runoff voting from the Center for Voting and Democracy.

Nathan Newman is a union lawyer, a longtime community activist, a National Vice President of the National Lawyers Guild and author of the forthcoming book NET LOSS on Internet policy and economic inequality. Email or see

Posted by Nathan at April 15, 2002 10:23 AM