When people go the polls in November’s general election many of them will be faced with a dilemma at the top of the ballot. People have serious concerns about both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. They may decide who to vote for on the basis of which man would be the lesser of two evils. Their options will be to vote for the man they believe will do the least harm to this country; vote for a third party candidate reflects their views but has no chance of winning; or simply not voting at all.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you which option you should exercise when you step up to cast your ballot and find yourself facing that dilemma. I simply want you to know that there is a better way.
Here in America our most popular system of voting is the “Winner Takes All” system where the ballots are counted (hopefully) once and the person with the most votes is declared the winner. I believe “Winner Takes All” is great for poker and bad for elections. In other countries, and indeed in some cities in this country, voting systems are used which give the voter more choices and third party candidates a genuine chance of being elected.
Instant Runoff Voting
The first such system is instant runoff voting. In instant runoff voting each voter has one vote, but with that vote they can rank the candidates in order of choice: 1, 2, 3, and so on. When the ballots are counted initially the first choices are counted. If one of the candidates has a majority of first choices they’re elected. But in instant runoff voting if no candidate has a majority of the votes another round of vote counting is done in which the ballots that had the last-place eliminated candidate as their top choice have that voter’s second choice counted. If that round of vote counting does not produce a winner the process of eliminating the last-place candidate and recounting the ballots continues until one candidate receives a majority of the votes.
If we had instant runoff in place for the upcoming general election here’s how it would work in the presidential race.
A progressive might have Rocky Anderson at the top of the ballot with Dr. Jill Stein second and President Obama third. If the initial count had no candidate with a majority of the votes and Rocky Anderson in last place, a second round of counting would be held in which that voter’s ballot would be counted for their second choice, Dr. Jill Stein. If no candidate had a majority of the votes in that round, and Dr. Jill Stein was in last place, a third round of counting would be done with that ballot counted for Barack Obama.
Instant runoff voting (IRV) does not give extra votes to defeated candidates. IRV is a one-person, one-vote system because in any given round of vote counting every person’s ballot can only be counted for one candidate. Instant runoff voting can be compared to the two-round runoff system. You vote for your favorite candidate in the first round. If your top candidate survives that first round you keep supporting that candidate. If they don’t you choose from among the remaining candidates. Instant runoff voting’s constitutionality as a one-person, one-vote system has been upheld by both state and federal courts.
There are some advantages that come with instant runoff voting which must be noted. First, instant runoff voting avoids third party candidates spoiling the election when splitting the majority vote. For instance, in the 2000 presidential election some people believe that Ralph Nader cost Al Gore the election because he took away votes from people, especially in Florida, who may have gone for Gore. Such spoiling of election results do not happen in IRV elections.
IRV can increase voter turnout because it gives every voter an incentive to participate. Their vote would still count even if their top choice candidate is defeated and eliminated. Instant runoff voting can also elevate the debate because all of the candidates have an incentive to focus on issues, to attract voters to their positions, and to form coalitions. Negative campaigning and personal attacks are much less effective in IRV elections.
Instant runoff voting gives voters more power because they can exercise a range of choices. This system of voting does not inherently advantage or disadvantage any political group, ideology, or interest groups. All of the parties are on equal ground.
If you believe that instant runoff voting sounds hard for the voters, consider this; all the voter has to do is rank one or more candidates. It’s like going out for an ice cream cone. The store has sold out of your first choice, fudge ripple. So, you go with your second choice, blue moon. If they don’t have that you go with your third choice, butter pecan. That’s all there is to it.
And, if you think this voting system sounds very foreign, consider this: Instant runoff is used to elect candidates to city offices in cities such as San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis and St. Paul, and Portland Maine. Many major universities are using it for their student govenment elections, and the Academy of Motion Pictures uses it for awarding their awards such as Best Picture.
Instant runoff voting is great for electing one person to one office, but not so good for multi-seat elections such as congressional elections. For those elections another system is much more beneficial.
The basic principle underlying proportional representation is that everyone should have the right to fair representation; all voters deserve representation and all political groups in society deserve to be represented in our legislatures in proportion to their strength in the electorate, There are a number of proportional representation models in use. In order to achieve the basic principles of fairrepresentation , all PR models in use have certain basic characteristics.
First, they use multi-member districts. Instead of electing one person to one district as we do in the U.S., several people are elected. These multi-member districts may be relatively small, with three or four members, or they may be larger with ten or more members. The second characteristic of all PR systems is that they divide the seats in these multi-member districts according to the proportion of votes received by the various parties running candidates. So, if the candidates of a party win 40% of the votes in a ten member district, they receive four of the ten seats–or 40% of the seats. And if another party wins 20% of the vote, they get two seats, and so on.
That’s the basics of proportional representation voting. As I mentioned, there are different models for achieving fair representation.
In Party List Voting each party puts up a list of candidates equal to the number of seats in that district. Independent candidates may also run, and are listed separately on the ballot; as if they were their own party. On election day the voters indicate their preference for a particular party, and the parties are then allocated seats in proportion to their share of the vote. The order of the candidates on the party’s slate is set by the party. The voters have no say in which of the party’s candidates receive the seats allocated to them. Thus, if the Democrats are allocated two seats, the top two candidates on the Democrats’ list would get those seats. That’s the Closed Party List system.
Most European democracies now use the Open List form of party list voting. In this form a primary election is held in which the voters vote for the individual candidates of their choice. The orde of the party’s slate is set in that primary, with the candidates with the most votes winning placement at the top of the list. Candidates at the top of the list have a greater chance of being elected. In the general election the voters select the candidate of their choice, with their vote counting for both the party and the candidate. When the seSats are allocated to a given party the candidates within that party with the most votes win those seats.
Here in the United States we would not be able to employ a classical proportional representation model in our Congressional elections. Article 1 Section 2 of the Constitution sets the number of members in the House of Representatives at one representative for every thirty thousand people in each district. So, we would not be able to have the multi-member representatives for each district characteristic in our PR system. But that doesn’t mean that proportional representation couldn’t be used for our Congressional elections; we’d just have to come up with our own model.
For instance, we could drop that first characteristic of multiple representatives for a district and use proportional representation for allocating seats for single representative districts. Here’s what that might look like.
As a result of the 2010 census, Michigan has 15 seats in theHouse of Representatives. Suppose general election results had the Democrats with 45% of the vote, the Republicans with 40%, the Green Party with 8% and the Libertarian Party with 7%. The Democrats would be allocated 45% of the seats or 7 seats. The Republicans would have 40% of the seats or 6 seats. The Green Party and the Libertarian Party, with 8% and 7% respectively would each be allocated one seat in our Congressional delegation. One seat each for the Greens and Libertarians may not sound like much, but if other states also used this model the number of minority party members holding seats in Congress would certainly reach significant levels. The minority parties would see their ability to advance their agenda increase significantly by forming coalitions with majority party members.
If proportional representation seems to be more complex than you can wrap your brain around consider this: when you turn on your television you don’t need to know the technological ins and outs of television broadcasting. All you need to know is how to turn on the TV. Similarly, with proportional representation it’s not necessary for you to understand how seats will be allocated for Congress based on which party you voted for. You won’t be counting the votes and allocating the seats in Congress. And you can be sure that the parties will make sure they get every seat they’re entitled to.
Under our current model of holding elections, the two major parties hold a near monopoly on governing power. Third parties have very little chance of winning state and federal electoral offices and putting forth the views of their supporters. Third party voters are left with the choice of tilting at windmills by voting for candidates who share their views but have little to no chance of being elected; or voting for someone who they have significant issues or differences of opinion with—the lesser of two evils.
Instant runoff voting would strengthen the voice of the voters. Voters would have the power to express more choice; and their vote could play a role in determining a winner much longer than our current plurality based “Winner Takes All” system. Proportional Representation would give third parties a genuine chance of winning seats in the legislature or congress; and advance an agenda that reflects the views of their supporters.
When you step up to cast your ballot on election day and prepare to hold your nose and vote for the lesser of two evils, remember, it doesn’t have to be that way. By adopting instant runoff voting and proportional representation we can strengthen the voice and power of the voter and give third parties a legitimate chance of winning elections and expressing the views and will of their supporters.