The Real Spoiler
It's time to reform the electoral system
[Instant Runoff Voting]
by Steven Hill and Rob Richie
The Progressive magazine, December 2000
The equivocal showing of Green Party presidential candidate
Ralph Nader - falling far short of the 5 percent threshold for
federal funds and winning enough votes in Florida to send the
election into turmoil-poses hard questions about a post-election
strategy for a progressive electoral movement, particularly with
Nader hinting at more spoilers to come from a nascent Green Party
that he promises to keep building.
On the positive side, Nader was on the ballot in 45 states,
raised more than $7 million, drew national attention to the progressive
critique of the Clinton-Gore administration and inspired tens
of thousands of enthusiasts in rallies in cities across the country.
But ultimately, under the pressures of the spoiler dilemma posed
by our winner-take-all system, Nader's support drained away on
Election Day. The Washington Post estimated that more than 5 million
would-be Nader supporters voted for a major party candidate after
wrestling with the spoiler dilemma.
In reflecting on the Nader campaign, it could not be more
obvious that there is one overriding obstacle to third-party candidacies:
our winner-take all voting practices that preserve the two-party
political system. Voting system reform in the form of proportional
representation for legislative elections and instant runoff voting
(IRV) for executive elections must be a cornerstone of the movement
to restore electoral democracy.
Given progressives' frustration with the rightward tilt of
Clinton-Gore, the very debate about Nader's candidacy revealed
a serious flaw in our antiquated voting practices: Voting for
your favorite candidate can lead to the election of your least
Fortunately Australia, England and Ireland have implemented
IRV. These nations share our tradition of electing candidates
by plurality (where the top vote-getter wins, even with less than
a majority) but now use IRV for most important elections. Mary
Robinson was elected president of Ireland by IRV, and Labor Party
maverick "Red Ken" Livingstone was elected mayor of
London. The Australian legislature has been elected by IRV for
Here's how IRV works: At the polls, voters select their favorite
candidate, but also indicate on the same ballot their second runoff
choice and subsequent runoff choices. If a candidate receives
a majority of first choices, the election is over. If not, the
candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and in the runoff
round each ballot counts for the top-ranked candidate still in
the race. Rounds of counting continue until there is a majority
winner. It's like a runoff election, but without voters needing
to return to the polls.
Imagine this year's presidential race with IRV: In July, Nader
surged to nearly 10 percent in national polls. He drew interest
from the United Auto Workers, Teamsters and leading environmental
organizations. Recognizing the spoiler problem, however, they
and many progressive constituencies grudgingly endorsed Gore.
But with IRV, Nader would not have worn the spoiler tag, and could
have mobilized a progressive constituency and even gained access
to the presidential debates. Progressives in Florida and elsewhere
could have ranked Nader as their first choice and Gore as their
backup runoff choice. Instead of waking up on November 8 with
an electoral hangover, they might have discovered that their runoff
choice had boosted Gore to victory-but with a caveat that said:
"Handle with care. Watch your step on trade, political reform
and environmental policies."
The increased support for Nader and attention to progressive
issues could have shifted the political center and helped Democrats
win those few extra seats necessary to retake Congress. Rather
than fracture a potential majority vote for one party, IRV could
have helped forge that majority through mobilizing and informing
new voters. The energies of young activists, some of whose belief
in electoral politics no doubt has been shaken by Nader's weak
showing, would have been hugely rewarded.
Once passions subside after this presidential election, progressive
Democrats and Green Party activists need to think seriously about
forging alliances to usher in electoral reform. In all 50 states,
IRV could be implemented right now for all federal elections,
including the presidential race, as well as state and local elections,
without changing a single federal law or amending the Constitution.
Already, IRV is gaining support in various states, particularly
when it solves a problem for a major party-as in New Mexico, where
the Greens have siphoned votes from the Democrats. Advocates in
Alaska-including leading Republicans-have turned in the requisite
signatures to place IRV on the 2002 statewide ballot. Vermont
also holds promise, with an impressive coalition supporting IRV
for statewide elections. And there are a growing number of opportunities
for city and state campaigns for IRV. In other words, progressive
Democrats and Green Party activists should be exploring ways to
work together to enact voting system reform.
But to gain a real foothold in power, IRV is not enough. Fair
representation demands scrapping winner-take-all rules in legislative
races in favor of proportional representation, as used in most
established democracies. With proportional representation, a political
party winning 10 percent of the popular vote wins 10 percent of
the legislative seats-instead of nothing. Representing more of
us would break open political monopolies and give political and
racial minorities realistic chances to win their fair share all
across the country. With proportional representation, the fight
for control of the House of Representatives this year would have
been a national election, rather than the piecemeal, money-driven
campaign that took place in 20 or 30 swing districts.
Other political reforms, notably public financing of elections
and fair ballot-access laws, are of critical importance to making
democracy work. But these other reforms cannot address the spoiler
dilemma, and they can't change the fact that winner-take-all elections
shut out political and racial minorities, since representation
is limited to those candidates and parties able to portray themselves
as being all things to approximately half the voters. Only voting
system reform will fundamentally level the playing field.
The power of IRV and proportional representation have dawned
on many Nader backers, particularly younger activists and Greens
who could be the backbone of a progressive electoral movement.
Nader himself backs IRV and proportional representation, but seems
confused about their fundamental importance to multiparty democracy.
Bewilderingly, he continues to tout a "None of The Above"
voting option, which does little to build a multiparty system.
That raises crucial questions: Will a Nader-led electoral movement
ignore the real barriers presented by winner-take-all. Or will
it use its modest clout and resources to work for multiparty democracy
founded on the bedrock of proportional representation for legislative
elections and instant runoff voting for executive races?
The Nader candidacy showed a glimpse of the power of a lasting
multiparty politics. But its limitations illuminate the critical
need to reform winner-take-all elections. The recent election
results clarify, once and for all, the direction a progressive
electoral movement must take. Let's start the legwork necessary
to liberate voters from a choice between "spoilers"
and "lesser evils."
It's time to change the voting system that spoils the game
for all of us.
Steven Hill and Rob Richie of the Center for Voting and Democracy
(www.fairvote.org) are co-authors of Reflecting All of Us (Beacon