With the Academy Awards over, it’s time for a new year of thrilling cinematic chills. How about: “Spoiler Dilemma, Take Three,” starring Ralph Nader?
It’s like a horror movie that keeps coming back. Once again, the audience is on edge. Democrats are fuming, no doubt preparing to use the same legal tricks they used in 2004 to keep Nader off the ballot in many states. Meanwhile, Republicans are cackling with glee.
But Republicans shouldn’t cackle too loudly. They also have been hurt by the spoiler dilemma. In fact, the GOP lost control of the U.S. Senate due to Libertarian Party candidates in the states of Montana, Washington and South Dakota spoiling Republicans. Many observers believe that Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush in 1992 only because Ross Perot drained away enough votes from Bush.
The problem is that the winners of our highest offices are not required to win a majority of the vote, either nationwide or in each state. Without a majority requirement, we can’t be certain in a multi-candidate field that the winner will be the one preferred by the most voters. That’s the premise for this horror movie repeat.
A lot is at stake to make sure that the winner in November can legitimately claim the presidency and try and heal a polarized nation. Yet despite the spoiler problem playing out in the 2000 presidential election and in various Senate races, neither Democratic nor Republican Party leaders have done anything to fix this defect of our electoral system. So our movie is a tragedy besides.
Fortunately, it’s not too late to fix this problem. Since the U.S. Constitution delegates to states the method of choosing its Electoral College electors, each state legislature could pass into law—right now—a majority requirement for their state to ensure that whichever candidate wins, she or he will command support from a majority of that state’s voters.
We don’t even need to do it in every state, since the race will boil down to a half dozen battleground states, including the perennials Ohio and Florida. Rather than asking Nader or any candidate to forego his democratic right to run for political office, the Democratic and Republican leaders could become heroes in this unfolding tragic movie. What are they waiting for?
Time is growing short, but it’s in the public interest to protect majority rule. One approach would be to adopt a two-round runoff system similar to that used in most presidential elections around the world and many primaries and local elections in the U.S. A first round with all candidates would take place in mid-October. The top two finishers would face off in November, with the winner certain to have a majority.
But two elections would be expensive and time-consuming, both for taxpayers and candidates. So a better way would be for each state to adopt instant runoff voting (IRV), which accomplishes the goal of electing a winner with majority support, but getting it over in a single election. IRV allows voters to pick not only your first choice but also to rank a second and third choice at the same time, 1, 2, 3. If your first choice can’t win, your vote goes to your second choice. The runoff rankings are used to determine a majority winner in one election. Nader or Perot-type voters are liberated to vote for their favorite candidate without helping to elect their least favorite.
IRV is used in Ireland and Australia for national elections, in San Francisco, Cary, North Carolina and elsewhere for local elections, and in South Carolina, Arkansas and Louisiana for overseas voters. Interestingly, IRV is supported by John McCain, Barack Obama and Ralph Nader.
Many people are criticizing Ralph Nader for risking a repeat of 2000, but only Democrats and Republicans have the power to change the rules of the game. We’ve seen this movie before and don’t like how it might turn out. It’s time for the Democrats and Republicans to produce a new ending by fashioning a fair, majoritarian system for electing our nation’s highest offices.
Steven Hill is director of the Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation and author of 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy (www.10steps.net).