A Way Out of the Nader Dilemma

Steven Hill // Published March 6, 2008 in Philadelphia Daily News
With Ralph Nader in the race, Democrats are fuming and no doubt preparing to use the same legal tricks they used in 2004 to keep Nader off the ballot in many states. Republicans are cackling with glee.

But Republicans shouldn't cackle too loudly. They've also been hurt by the spoiler dilemma.

In fact, the GOP lost control of the U.S. Senate due to Libertarian Party candidates in Montana, Washington, Missouri, Nevada and South Dakota spoiling things for Republicans. And 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.

How ridiculous: We can map the human genome, and send an astronaut to the moon, but we can't figure out a way to hold elections that guarantee the winner has a majority of the vote?

Naturally people are having flashbacks to the 2000 election, when George Bush beat Al Gore in Florida by only 538 votes, even though Bush lacked a majority of Florida's popular vote and Ralph Nader won 97,000 votes.

So much is at stake in a presidential election that we have to make sure that the winner this November can legitimately claim the presidency and try to 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.

Fortunately, it's not too late to address 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, he or she 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 legislate this right now. 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 southern primaries and local elections in the United States.

A first round with all candidates could 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 their 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 with only 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, N.C., 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 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).