November 19, 2000
Instant Runoff – Voting Reform
By Royce Carlson
With all the fuss generated by the too-close U.S. presidential election, a
lot of people around the world are wondering what the problem is. Why is it
taking so long? Is our voting system inadequate? What kind of example is the
self-appointed world’s leading democracy setting? It is obvious to most that
there are flaws in the system. Here are some ideas that can help.
In the current system in the United States, single person positions like
president are filled by either direct voting for the candidate or by indirect
voting in the case of the president via the Electoral College. A majority is
not required to get a candidate elected. If there are three or more
participating candidates, the winner can have less than 50% of the votes. A
winner this way has no clear mandate from the voters since more than 50% voted
against him or her.
In my opinion, the Electoral College only makes things worse. The only
positions elected this way are the President and Vice President. The main
argument supporters of the Electoral College put forth is that smaller states
get more equal representation using the Electoral College. The states already
have their Representatives and Senators to put state issues before the federal
government. With a presidential election, a state is an arbitrary division. The
Electoral College should be abandoned. We won’t miss it! We should have the
president and Vice President elected by popular vote. But that’s not all.
The current system creates a dilemma for third party voters. There is the
possibility of a third party candidate being a "spoiler" for a main
party candidate. This puts pressure on voters to not vote for their favorite
candidate in fear that they may actually elect their least favorite candidate.
This is the accusation going on these days regarding Ralph Nader taking votes
away from Al Gore. There is a system that eliminates this problem that is
already in use in Europe and in some city elections in the U.S. It is called
Instant Runoff Voting.
In instant runoff voting (IRV) voters rank the candidates in order by first
choice, second, third, etc. If a candidate does not get a clear majority (over
50% of the vote) the ballots are re-tallied in the following way. The candidate
with the least votes is dropped and the second choice of that candidate’s
voters is counted and added to the total. The process is repeated until one
candidate has a clear majority. Using the current presidential election as an
example, Nader voters could have put Al Gore as their second choice on the
ballot. Since Nader would have been dropped during the instant runoff, the
second choice candidate, Al Gore would get those votes giving him a clear
majority. The IRV system obviously eliminates the possibility of
"spoiler" votes and encourages the growth of third parties which is
healthy for democracy.
Another problem in the U.S. is the inconsistency of the ballots and the
inadequate staffing of the polling places. The polls are staffed mostly by
volunteers and it is getting harder and harder to find people to do it. Let’s
face it, it costs money to collect and process the votes. With a little more
funding there would not be the problems of voters being turned away due to
insufficient staffing. There could be money put into the best vote tallying
machines for every polling place and there could be paid professional staff.
Where can the money come from?
Why not tax campaign contributions to support the running of the election
process itself? I understand that somewhere around 200 million dollars was
collected in campaign contributions by the presidential candidates alone. If a
tax of only 5% was put on that, $10 million would become available to upgrade
our vote collecting and counting system to not only insure that those who want
to vote can vote but to also insure the most accurate counting system possible.
This tightly contested presidential election hopefully will catalyze serious
thought about how voting can be improved. If the U.S. wants to lead the world
as an example of functional democracy, some changes need to be made. Instant
runoff voting is a great solution.
Here are a few links on IRV
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