Switching to a more accurate vote tally just an American Dream

Richard Osborne // Published February 3, 2008 in The Morning Journal
It is starting to sort itself out. Cooler heads are prevailing. Or, as Ann Landers used to advise her more stubborn readers to do, some politicians -- among the most stubborn folks in the world -- are finally waking up and smelling the coffee.

Even Dennis Kucinich -- switching metaphors as well as morning brews -- has accurately read his tea leaves and has bowed out of the Democratic presidential race. John Edwards got the message, too. As did Tom Vilsack, Christopher Dodd, Joe Biden and Bill Richardson. Only Mike Gravel hadn't got the word yet. (Memo to Mike: It's over.)

Similarly, there are fewer lines on the Republican ledger now. Gone is Rudy Giuliani (for which I am particularly grateful because I always have to look up the spelling of his name). Sam Brownback, Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo and Tommy Thompson have stepped aside. Even Fred Thompson, the actor, took the cue and exited -- stage right, of course. Ron Paul, meanwhile, refuses to move. (Memo to Ron: See Memo to Mike, above.)

It's all good. We now approach a manageable lineup of contenders in both parties. John McCain and Mitt Romney are the Republican headliners, with Mike Huckabee in small print and Ron Paul in agate. For the Democrats, it's Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama front and center, with Mike Gravel mixing it up on the sidelines.

Gone are so-called debates that seemed more like the first round of grammar school spelling bees (with less intelligent content and maybe contestants). And, most important of all, gone are vote tallies that distorted the picture of voters' true preferences.

In most elections with multiple candidates -- including presidential primaries and, in some cases, general elections -- we still cling to the unsound notion that the candidate with the plurality of votes is the same candidate who would have the majority in a two-candidate matchup. Often, it simply isn't true.

That's why some cities and even some countries have chosen to adopt some form of a preferential voting system that, in effect, includes a primary that narrows the field to the two top choices and puts them in a runoff. There are various forms of the system, including Single Transferable Vote (STV) and Proportional Representation (PR), but they boil down to the same thing.

Heres how it works:

Voters rank their choices, and all first-choice votes are tallied. Ballots cast for the candidate receiving the least first-choice votes are then redistributed according to the second choice listed. The process then resumes, with the ballots for the candidate now having the least votes redistributed to the second choice listed -- or third choice if the second choice already has been eliminated. The procedure continues until the last two candidates are standing, and the one with the highest number of ballots wins.

While it sounds slightly complicated, it really is quite simple. Your vote counts right down to the final matchup. As a result, we don't have to speculate whether John Edwards' votes would have gone to Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, for example. We would know for sure. And a true winner would emerge.

Although the laundry lists of candidates in primaries produce the most distorted results in our traditional system of vote counting, general elections can be skewed out of the realm of reality too. Think Ross Perot. Think Ralph Nader. Take off the third wheel, and the direction we take may change dramatically.

On the national scale, of course, it's highly unlikely we'll ever alter our course to insure that voters always have an effective voice. Still, it's nice to imagine. Call it another American dream.

Morning Journal columnist Richard J. Osborne shares his perspective on the people and events that shape our lives.