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Between the Lines: No More "Lesser of Two Evils"

How Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) could end congressional paralysis and restore legitimacy to American elections.

Comments (1)
Thursday, October 11, 2012

Increasingly, every presidential election seems to come down to which guy you dislike the least. This being the case, it's really no wonder that participation in American elections suffers from such anemic turnout; even if you do believe that your vote counts and that the whole system isn't rigged, you're still usually just presented with a choice between Turd 1 and Turd 2.

It's hardly an appetizing menu of options when you're ostensibly deciding who's going to lead the free world for the next four years, and it's a demoralizing situation that ultimately breeds more and more cynical generations of young voters, or non-voters.

There might just be a simple way out of this situation: IRV. IRV (Instant Runoff Voting) is a very achievable, common-sense remedy to the ongoing torture of being asked to choose between Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dumb, and it's vexing to many that the United States hasn't adopted it in national elections yet. The fact that it hasn't is further proof of the stranglehold that the two major parties have on our government—two parties that a) many might argue aren't very different from one another at all, and b) have ground Congress to a halt unless that entity votes to continue bowing even lower to the wealthy, the corporatocracy and the military-industrial complex.

If you don't know how IRV (sometimes called "preferential voting") works, check it out: instead of a ballot on which you only check one box (i.e. Mitt Romney-R or Barack Obama-D), there are several candidates (that would likely also include Gary Johnson-L, Jill Stein-G, Rocky Anderson-J, and others) who all also have boxes. Many of these third-party candidates already have boxes you can check, but only by not voting for someone else. With IRV, number values are assigned to your vote, so if you like Jill Stein best , you put a "1" in her box, and a "2" in Rocky Anderson's box if you like him second-best, then you put a "3" in Barack Obama's box if you like him third-best.

When the votes are tallied, if a candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, that candidate is declared the winner. If not, the candidate with the least votes in the initial round is eliminated, and his/her votes are awarded to the remaining candidates according to the voters' indicated preferences. This continues until one candidate achieves more than 50 percent of the total vote.

One of the critical functions of IRV is that it eliminates the possibility of the "spoiler"—a boogeyman that entrenched Republicrats have sold to the American people as the reason not to vote for third party candidates—conveniently personified by Ralph Nader after the contentious 2000 presidential elections that ended when the Supreme Court installed George W. Bush in the White House after months of recounting butterfly ballots and dimpled chads. Sans spoilers, IRV emboldens voters to express support for candidates who more comprehensively represent their interests, values and beliefs without the nagging threat of throwing their votes away.

Of course, these concepts are anathema to partisan politicos, and applying fundamental change of this nature to national electoral politics would likely require some sort of vast public referendum; power is generally not relinquished without a few bloody noses.

IRV is already used in various forms in many democracies, including both parliamentary and/or presidential elections in Ireland, India, Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea. It has also been used in numerous municipal elections across the U.S.: in San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn. and closer to home in Portland, Maine and Burlington, Vt. It's also used to choose the Oscar winners.

Furthermore, IRV has been described as less vulnerable than the current system to manipulation, notably by Virginia Tech Professor of Economics and voting theory scholar Nicolaus Tideman, who called such systems of alternative voting "quite resistant to strategy." This is important as, in addition to the more truly representative choices IRV offers, the system fosters increased legitimacy, and so likely boosts voter confidence, which could boost voter participation. And that, fellow Americans, is called democracy.?

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There's an even simpler idea: approval voting. It's a system that uses the same ballots and the same machines, but lets you vote for more than one instead of throwing those ballots away. By counting all the votes, and not using the complicated elimination rounds of IRV, you get a spoiler-proof system that's also easier to count and less likely to eliminate a good compromise candidate.

And these systems — either IRV, or Approval, or other anti-spoiler systems like Majority Judgment — are not as anathema to politicians as you might think. The stronger party in a region is the one who has most to lose from spoiler candidates, and so the most to gain from fixing the voting system.

Even if you like one of the two-party candidates, voting reform has something for you. Just as commercial competition motivates better customer service, a healthier electoral competition would motivate better voter service.

Posted by Jameson Quinn on 10.9.12 at 17:51
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