Spoiler alert

Cosmo Garvin // Published March 6, 2008 in Sacramento News and Review
The 2000 elections bitterly divided the editorial staff at SN&R. It wasn’t red vs. blue so much as blue vs. green.

Bites remembers being in the vocal minority that argued against endorsing Al Gore that year, in favor of Ralph Nader. Our little newsroom chapter of Nader’s Raiders argued, “What’s the worst that could happen?” After all, there weren’t any real differences between the two major parties. And with Nader, we were voting “our hopes, rather than our fears.”

Nowadays, Bites just votes the fears.

If it weren’t for the humiliating nightmare of the past eight years, Bites would still rather vote Nader, or Cynthia McKinney (the likely Green Party nominee this year), over either of the Clinton Democrats vying for the nomination.

True, Nader has been largely written off as being nowhere near the factor that that he was in 2000. But the spoiler possibility is built into our election system.

“It’s like a horror movie that keeps coming back,” says Steven Hill, with New America Foundation. With Nader announcing his fourth run for the White House, Hill says the Democrats are “no doubt preparing the same legal tricks they used in 2004 to keep Nader off the ballot in many states.” Some folks will still insist, without success, that the major media outlets “let Ralph debate.” Bites will leave it to them this time around.

But here’s a crazy idea: Why don’t we require our presidents to win a majority of the votes? There is a way to eliminate the spoiler problem for good. It’s called Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), and Hill and other reform-minded folks (particularly Nader and the Green Party) have been pushing it for years.

“It wouldn’t be difficult at all,” says Hill, adding that most states could implement IRV in time for the November election.

It does take a little bit of explaining, and for more detailed description, go to www.fairvote.org. But here it is in a nutshell:

We use runoffs all the time in mayor’s races and other local elections. In these races, a candidate has to get more than 50 percent of the vote to win. If no one gets the majority vote, a runoff election between the top two vote getters is held.

It’s expensive and time-consuming to hold multiple elections, so some cities and counties have switched to IRV—which basically combines the election and runoff election into one.

The biggest difference with IRV is that voters get to mark their first, second and third choices on the ballot, sometimes more, depending on the number of candidates.

If no candidate is the first choice of a majority of voters (50-percent-plus-one vote), then the registrar starts counting second-choice votes. That will usually push someone over the 50 percent mark, but third and fourth rounds are possible. The upshot is that our leaders actually have to win broad support, and nobody has to feel guilty about voting for the candidate who turns them on.

Now, Bites knows many of you will write off IRV as fruity and naive. But the system has some pretty prominent supporters.

“Instant runoff voting will lead to good government because voters will elect leaders who have the support of a majority.” That’s Senator John McCain explaining why he supported IRV when it was on the ballot in Alaska in 2002. Senator Barack Obama is a supporter, too, having introduced legislation in Illinois that would have made IRV the law of the land State in local elections.

And if you think about it, how esoteric is IRV compared to the institution of the “super delegate?” Or the Electoral College? Or expensive, scarily hackable electronic voting machines?

Hill says party bosses ought to be trying to push IRV in state houses around the country, but especially in battleground states like Ohio and Florida. They won’t, of course. But don’t worry, what’s the worst that can happen?