The United States is often said to be a "great experiment" constantly being refined and reformed. Without a doubt, third party movements have often been behind such reforms. Throughout their history, these small but vocal parties have worked to raise awareness of ignored issues and fought for important changes such as the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, and worker’s rights -- issues that get at the heart of citizenship and representation.
Reformers have never faced a shortage of problems to address in the elections department, and over time, an overall direction of progress has become clear. In 1913, a full 125 years after ratification of the Constitution, the ability to vote for Senators was removed from the legislatures and given directly to the people, a law embodied in the 17th Amendment. Women won the right to vote in 1920. The District of Columbia got the ability to put forth electors for president in the 23rd Amendment. The voting age was 'dropped to 18 by the 26th Amendment. Election reform in the United States has tended towards more democracy characterized by increased inclusiveness and direct accountability to the people.
Notably, though third party challengers have played roles in influencing these debates, success in influence has rarely translated into success at the polls. The explanation for this lies with our electoral system. Despite the fact that the expansion of voting rights has been a focus of third party efforts, our country’s basic electoral structures have remained largely unchallenged. Indeed, our electoral system hinders the very reform efforts aimed at improving it. Because of this, most reform movements have worked within the confines of the winner-take-all electoral system the United States inherited from Britain centuries ago.
THE WINNER-TAKE-ALL SYSTEM THROTTLES REFORM EFFORTS
Winner-take-all means that we reward 100% of representation to 51% of the population, an imbalance that by nature creates polarizing campaigns that ignore important issues and leaves voters with few meaningful choices. Over time we have seen women, youths, and people of color gain the right to vote -- but we have not seen them gain the right for that vote to count toward meaningful representation. Under an electoral system tilted in favor of those already in power, the ability of third parties and other political minorities to influence debate, much less actually win seats, will always be abridged.
Today is a time when voting reform must again move forward. Women, third party members, political independents, and people of color are still vastly under-represented in elected bodies. Meanwhile, the vast majority of legislative races in the United States are won in wildly uncompetitive landslides, with members of Congress consistently enjoying a nearly 99% incumbent retention rate.
THERE IS A LOT TO DO, BUT WHERE DO WE BEGIN?
Some claim a process of sweeping “modernization” is required to fix the structural problems plaguing our elections, something to bring us more in line with other successful Western democracies. While change must indeed come, however, it need not come like a tidal wave. The tools we need to better our democracy are already with us. What is needed is less a fundamental overhaul than steady, vigorous progress -- seeking changes on the local level and using these to build momentum. The following are two basic, commonsense improvements that can make our democracy more open, more inclusive, and ultimately, more fair.
INSTANT RUNOFF VOTING (IRV)
In most U.S. elections for a single office, the candidate with the most votes wins. This sounds innocuous enough at first. However, under this system, three is a crowd. The so-called “spoiler” phenomenon, by which a third party candidate is said to siphon off support from one of the larger parties, became infamous in 2000, when the failings of our plurality elections stood in stark relief. Seemingly, the system began to break down the minute a strong third party entered the field. Of course, when major parties feel threatened, they move to marginalize and stamp down the third party to prevent their own support from eroding.
This problem need not persist. If instant run off voting (IRV) were in place, the “spoiler” effect would evaporate. Under IRV, voters rank candidates in order of preference instead of picking just one. When the ballots are counted, if no candidate receives a majority, the lowest vote-getter is eliminated and their ballots are instead counted for the second choice candidate. This method of elimination and redistribution of votes continues until a winner is produced who has majority support.
In contrast, under our current system, the winner often wins without a majority. Indeed, presidential candidates frequently carry states with meager support, such as Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory in Nevada with only 37% of Nevada voters marking their ballots for him. The problem is magnified in the case of strong regional third parties, such as in 1968 when George Wallace’s American Independent Party garnered 13% of the vote, and Richard Nixon took the White House with 43%. IRV, by transferring auxiliary choices, assures a winner who not only has a majority, but a solid sense of popular legitimacy.
Ranked choice systems acknowledge a more subtle political reality than that created by our plurality elections, which tend to polarize the electorate and cause bitter partisan division. Because preferences are expressed more precisely than just an “X” next to a single name, IRV encourages the entry of new candidates, and therefore enriches political debate. Rather than feared as a potential “spoiler,” third parties in an IRV election are more likely to be welcomed, because they will bring in new voters whose second choice votes may aid other candidates. These systems also make for positive campaigning. After all, sane candidates are not likely to attack their opponents when they themselves could be the second choice of their target’s supporters.
IRV has been used successfully. San Francisco’s first IRV election in 2004 showed great promise, with an exit poll finding that wide majorities of voters understood the new system and preferred it to the old system. IRV has subsequently seen landslide wins on ballot questions in Burlington, Vermont, Ferndale, Michigan and other cities, and has also been recognized as a smart solution to the problem of overseas and military voters’ inability to vote in runoff elections.
The problem of winner-take-all extends beyond elections for single seats such as president or mayor. We must also consider bodies such as the House of Representatives, and state and local legislatures. Currently, a single member plurality system is used to elect such bodies. This means a geographic area is divided into a number of voting districts, each represented by a single elected official. Voters can vote only for their district’s representative, with the highest vote-getter winning election, even if the candidate gets less than half of the vote. Single member districts limit voter choice and discourage creative campaigns. They also make it harder for women, people of color, and third party candidates to mount challenges.
Full representation proposes a change. As a term, full representation describes electoral systems promoting more accurate, balanced representation of the spectrum of political opinion. Under such systems, like-minded groupings of voters win legislative seats in better proportion to their share of the population. Whereas winner-take-all elections award 100% of seats to a 50.1% majority, full representation allows voters in a minority to win a fair share of representation. The majority still rules, but the minority is not shut out.
One such system, “choice voting,” calls for multi-member districts in which the threshold to win a seat is lower. For example, in a five-member district, a candidate would need about 17% of the vote to win election. The number of members in the overall body need not change. Simply, voters would inhabit larger districts with more representatives in each. The presence of more elected officials in a district means a greater range of political opinion can be represented, and also protects the voice of the minority. Choice voting works similarly to IRV, in that voters rank candidates, thereby avoiding the “wasted vote syndrome” when candidates might fail to reach the winning threshold.
This concept has already been used successfully in the United States. On the municipal level, the list includes New York City under Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and the city council and school committees in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where it boasts a six-decade history. A form of full representation was also used to elect the Illinois legislature until 1980. Elsewhere, in large part because of John Stuart Mill’s advocacy, choice voting has been used primarily in English-speaking nations, as in the parliaments of Malta and the Republic of Ireland, the federal senate in Australia, and the regional assembly and most cities in Northern Ireland.
THE ROLE OF THIRD PARTIES IN ELECTORAL REFORM
In some respects, third parties have the most to gain from reforms such as IRV and choice voting. Clearly, because these systems prevent “wasted votes,” third party candidates can credibly throw off the onerous “spoiler” label that weighs them down during campaigns. Because voters rank their preferences, they need not fear that if their first choice is not a viable candidate, their entire vote is rendered worthless. Rather, their second choices would at this point come into play. Freed from this restriction, third parties under IRV would be positioned to grow support for their policies and beliefs.
Moreover, the ideals driving these reforms speak to an important principle, one that values a diversity of voices in the political arena, and a full range of opinion in public discourse. Surely that goal will resonate with third parties, who seek to make their own voices heard in a system that currently excludes them. In moving toward this goal, the passion and energy of third parties will be essential.
The United States has shown its greatest strength and its greatest wisdom through its willingness to change. The electoral problems facing our country today demand we recognize that tradition. By embracing straightforward and level-headed reforms such as instant runoff voting and full representation, we will be fulfilling that tradition, and taking meaningful steps toward a stronger democracy.
Ryan O'Donnell is Communications Director for FairVote -- The Center for Voting and Democracy, and has worked for the Electoral Reform Society in the United Kingdom. For more information, visit www.fairvote.org. Originally published in the Summer 2005 edition of Green Horizon Quarterly.