Political game on road to President XLIV far from super

Burt Constable // Published January 22, 2008 in Daily Herald
America has a wonderful method of winnowing the field of hopefuls until we are left with two football teams that will play in the Super Bowl. We're not nearly as efficient when it comes to our system of selecting the final candidates to run for the White House.

In Sunday's NFL playoff action, the New York Giants won a spot in the ultimate game without any consideration of whether that team had a better chance than Green Bay of defeating New England in Super Bowl XLII. No referees changed their minds about calls because Packers quarterback Brett Favre showed some emotion. The Giants' Eli Manning didn't have to win Punt, Pass and Kick competitions in Iowa and New Hampshire before being allowed to play in the big game. The Patriots didn't score more points than San Diego only to be denied the Super Bowl because obscure football caucus rules gave the Chargers the nod.

While football features upsets and remarkable comebacks, the general consensus among fans is that the two teams that play in the Super Bowl got there fair and square. The playoffs work.

In politics, we use a primary system to select the candidates fighting for the presidency. How's that work?

"The purpose of primary elections is, in theory, to give voters the best candidates," writes former suburban Congressman John Porter in his new job as a trustee at The Brookings Institution, a not-for-profit public policy think tank in Washington, D.C. "In practice, they are a dismal failure."

Our current primary system is "characterized by excessive partisanship" that "thwarts the fundamental purposes of representative government," writes Porter, a Wilmette Republican who served 21 years in Congress representing the 10th District of northern Cook and eastern Lake counties.

Porter's solution is "instant runoff voting" -- a system that eliminates the concept of "wasted votes" and "spoiler candidates" while "empowering moderate voters."

Say you are a John Edwards fan, and you really don't want Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic nominee. Under our current system, a vote for Edwards could help Clinton beat Barack Obama. If Clinton gets 34 percent of the vote and Obama and Edwards equally split the other 66 percent, Clinton wins even though only a third of voters wanted her.

Under instant runoff voting, voters would rank candidates. Instead of fearing a "wasted vote," Edwards supporters could vote for their candidate and make Obama their second choice. If no candidate gets a majority, the last-place finisher is eliminated and his voters' second-choice votes are counted.

With instant runoff voting, people who voted for third-party candidates such as Ralph Nader or Ross Perot could have seen their votes go to their next favorite candidate. That way, voters eventually would elect a candidate who earned more than 50 percent of the vote.

In 2002, Obama sponsored a bill in the Illinois Senate that would have established instant runoff voting for statewide primary elections, and allowed communities to use it for local elections. That bill died.

Republican John McCain also has voiced support for instant runoff voting.

Former Illinois Congressman John B. Anderson, 85, who ran for president as a third-party candidate in 1980, chairs a nonpartisan electoral reform organization (FairVote.org) that long has championed instant runoff voting.

San Francisco, Minneapolis and other cities use IRV without problems. So does Australia, London and other international communities. It reduces the impact of small, active minorities and returns power to the voters.

"Instant runoff voting can turn U.S. elections from an embarrassment into a much closer representation of the democratic ideal," Porter concludes.

If we had it, it might even be able to give us a President XLIV who turns out to be super.