Instant Runoff Voting
The Solution to "The Lesser of Two Evils"
by Daniel Solnit
Sonoma County Peace Press, October 2000
Many progressives are facing a recurring election-season dilemma:
should I vote my conscience, supporting a third party candidate
who really represents my values? Or should I hold my nose and
vote for the lesser of two evils?
Having to even ask this question indicates something terribly
wrong with our election system. A forced choice between two evils
is not true democracy-it's more like electoral extortion. The
result is political disengagement among the majority of eligible
voters, who sit out elections rather than take part in a pretense
of competition between two wings of the same corporate party.
Even those who persist in voting feel increasingly disgusted and
The most tragic aspect of this situation is our diminished
expectations. Convinced we cannot win meaningful peace, social
justice, human needs, or environmental protection from our electoral
process, we settle for damage control, hoping that one party will
do slightly less harm than the other. We have surrendered our
power and our inherent right to democratic self-governance to
corporate big-money interests, and we act as if this were normal
or acceptable. It's not, and it's time we stopped putting up with
this hijack of our democracy.
This dilemma arises from a two-party monopoly, institutionalized
in everything from unreasonable ballot access laws and systematic
media bias, to a presidential debate commission run by the former
chairs of the Democratic and Republican national committees and
illegally funded by major corporations. Couple this "duopoly"
with the increasing domination of both major parties by corporate
interests (and their resulting rightward slide), and progressives
are left with very few major party candidates worthy of our votes
and alternative candidates who stand little chance of winning.
Some blame the voting public for opting out, or the media
for reducing elections to the level of sports coverage, or even
the third parties for "spoiling" races by offering voters
a meaningful choice. However, the problem is the voting system
itself-it's just plain undemocratic. Our "winner-take-all"
system may have been state-of-the-art two centuries ago, but it
is now as obsolete as the quill pen.
There is a better way, one which is more fair, more democratic,
and more representative of the majority of voters. It's called
Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), or Preference Voting. IRV is already
used in many countries, including the U.S., for some local elections,
and to select Academy Awards Oscar winners. IRV allows you to
rank candidates according to your preference, I - 2-3. If your
first choice is eliminated, your vote automatically transfers
to your second choice.
IRV is simple, but it's effects are dramatic. No more voting
for the lesser of two evils-you really can vote for the best candidate.
No more "spoilers"-if your first choice doesn't win,
you help elect your second choice, not your last choice. By providing
real choice, IRV increases voter turnout, and represents the true
preference of the majority.
For example, in a recent New Mexico congressional race, Green
Party candidate Carol Miller ran for a "safe" seat held
by Democrats for 40 years. Miller got 17% of the vote, the Democrat
got 40%, and the Republican was elected with just 43%. It's a
safe guess that most of Miller's supporters would have ranked
the Democrat second under an IRV system, thus electing the Democrat
once Miller was eliminated.
This could happen in California. Suppose Nader gets 17%, Gore
40%, and Bush 43%-Bush wins all the state's electoral votes, even
though he got far less than a majority. With IRV, if a majority
of Nader supporters rank Gore second, Gore pulls ahead of Bush
and wins the state.
Because IRV removes the fear of electing the worst, it encourages
people to vote for the best. With IRV, it's conceivable that,
if the millions of voters who really prefer Nader actually ranked
him first choice, Nader could win.
Even when alternative candidates don't win, the larger percentage
of first choice votes they receive would act as a counterpressure
to the rightward drift in both major parties, and would force
major party candidates to address real issues and consider adopting
U.S. courts have upheld IRV systems as constitutional. It
is already being adopted in colleges (for student elections) and
in membership organizations. IRV can be adopted for local and
state elections such as mayor or governor. Congress could change
the presidential election to IRV without amending the constitution.
For more info on IRV, Proportional Representation, and other
voting reforms, contact the Center for Voting and Democracy: www.fairvote.org
(415) 824-2735 or see The Sonoma County Green Party website: www.sonomagreenparty.org
Daniel Solnit is Executive Director for the Leadership Institute
for Ecology and the Economy. He can be reached at (707) 578-9133
or at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.