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 favorite candidate.

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 decades.

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 ( are co-authors of Reflecting All of Us (Beacon Press).

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