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 disempowered.

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 progressive positions.

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: (415) 824-2735 or see The Sonoma County Green Party website: (707) 524-8818.


Daniel Solnit is Executive Director for the Leadership Institute for Ecology and the Economy. He can be reached at (707) 578-9133 or at <eco/>.

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