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Alternative Culture Articles

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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Royce Carlson