November presidential race to have four Members of Congress? Time for IRV....

by Rob Richie // Published May 9, 2008
The United States electoral process demands improvement. Nearly a third of eligible voters aren't registered. We have a patchwork of election administration rules that can work extremely well in some counties and states and miserably in others. Some eight million citizens can't vote for President and representation in Congress -- but would gain that right if living in another state.

But there's one simple failure that is particularly galling, yet easily correctable: we don't require candidates to win our most powerful executive offices with a majority of the votes. Instead, we generally rely on "plurality voting" -- meaning the candidate with the most votes wins no matter how low their percentage, in turn making it far harder to hold leaders accountable and accommodate voter choice.

Majority voting is the international norm for presidential elections around the world, as FairVote detailed in this 2006 report. Most nations use two-round runoff systems to elect their presidents. Ireland uses instant runoff voting. But nearly every American governor can win even if strongly opposed by most voters, and every state awards its presidential electoral votes to the plurality vote winner.

As a result, the fact that we likely will have new choices and new voices in the November presidential race will be greeted by most partisans with alarm, rather than interest. When elections are neat and tidy with two choices, the winner has a majority. With the shocking appearance of more candidates, our system goes haywire.

Well, folks, it looks like haywire wins again this year -- we may well have two U. S. Senators, two recent U.S. House Members and past presidential candidates Ralph Nader and Alan Keyes in the November presidential mix.

We know that the Republican nominee will be Senator John McCain. The Democratic nominee will be Senator Barack Obama or Senator Hillary Clinton. Now former Georgia Member of Congress Bob Barr has announced he would seek the Libertarian Party nomination. Another former Georgia Member of Congress, Cynthia McKinney, is the frontrunner for the Green Party nomination. Three-time candidate Ralph Nader has thrown his hat in the ring as an independent, and former Republican presidential Alan Keyes is seeking the Constitution Party's nomination. Other less prominent candidates also will run. [UPDATE ON MAY 11: As noted by Dave Schaich below, Alan Keyes has lost the Constitution Party nomination to Chuck Baldwin. Keyes may run as an independent.]

I happen to like voter choice. I like voter participation. I'm a fan of democracy, and those are two rather important conditions of it. We should welcome more perspectives and more oppportunities to hold major party nominees accountable.

But that's not how these candidacies will be greeted. Already some Republicans have woken up to the potential Bob Barr nomination splitting the Republican vote, while Nader's name draws bitter fusillades from many Democrats thinking back to the 2000 election. Major party leaders have decided to maintain plurality voting elections, so apparently they think the game should be kept to themselves.

There fortunately are a growing number of exceptions. Two of them happen to be the frontrunners for their presidential nomination: both John McCain and Barack Obama have actively backed instant runoff voting -- hear McCain's 2002 phone message about IRV and read Obama's 2002 bill supporting instant runoff voting.

But for the major party leaders who aren't taking action, you can't have it both ways. If you don't like "spoilers", adopt instant runoff voting or runoff elections. If you don't want to adopt majority voting, then you have to live with the consequences. I know which decision I would make.