If you want change,
switch to instant runoff voting

Ralph Nader has been my hero for over 25 years, but I'm voting for Al Gore. Gore is the most liberal candidate who can win.

What about voting for Nader as a way of sending a message? I say: If you want to send a message, use e-mail. The election system is designed to turn protest votes into wasted votes. The system is like a suggestion-box connected to a shredder.

What about voting for Nader as a way of nudging Gore to the left? I say: Voting for Nader could nudge Gore right off a cliff.

What about giving Nader and the Greens 5% of the national vote so that the party qualifies for federal matching funds in 2004? I ask: Why? So that the Greens can attract more message-sending voters four years from now?

Nader is right that the two major parties have a stranglehold on politics. But you don't get a multiparty system by voting for the person who passionately criticizes the two major parties. You don't get a multiparty system by voting for third parties in a two-party system that strangles third parties. You get a multiparty system by working for election reforms.

Imagine this reform.

2nd Tuesday in October / Runoff #1. Five candidates are on the presidential ballot in Massachusetts: Gore, Bush, Nader; Pat Buchanan, the Reform Party candidate; and Harry Browne, the Libertarian candidate. You go to the polls and vote for your first choice, Nader. After all the ballots are counted, no candidate has won a majority. The fifth-place finisher, Browne, is dropped from the next ballot.

3rd Tuesday in October / Runoff #2. Four candidates are on the ballot: Gore, Bush, Nader, and Buchanan. Everyone goes back to the polls. You vote for your first choice, Nader. Browne's supporters vote for their second choice; some vote for Buchanan, some vote for Bush, and so on. After all the ballots are counted, no candidate has won a majority. The fourth-place finisher, Buchanan, is dropped from the next ballot.

Last Tuesday in October / Runoff #3. Three candidates are on the ballot: Gore, Bush, and Nader. You vote for Nader. Everyone who voted for Buchanan last time votes for his or her next choice this time. No candidate wins a majority. Nader comes in third, and is dropped from the next and last ballot.

Election Day in November / Final runoff. Only Gore and Bush are on the ballot. You vote for Gore. You already had your chance to vote for Nader. It wasn't a protest vote. Nader had his chance to win a majority, but missed.

You get to vote when it really counts. Whoever wins this final runoff will have a majority, not a mere plurality.

Now imagine a system where the four runoffs are compressed into one election. It exists. It's called Instant Runoff Voting. It's done with computerized voting software.

You go to the polls once. You vote once. But you would rank your choices: Nader, 1; Gore, 2; and so. Other voters would rank their choices.

If no candidate gets an outright majority of votes, the last-place candidate, say the Libertarian, is eliminated. If your neighbor's first choice was the Libertarian and second choice was Bush, your neighbor's vote is transferred to Bush in this instant runoff. If your uncle's first choice was the Libertarian and second choice was Buchanan, your uncle's vote is transferred to Buchanan.

Your neighbor, your uncle, and you don't have to come back to the polls and vote in runoffs. The computerized voting machine is holding the runoffs. That's why it's called Instant Runoff Voting.

If no candidate gets a majority of votes in the four-way runoff, the last place candidate, say Buchanan, is eliminated. All votes for Buchanan get transferred to Bush, Gore, or Nader, according to the next choice of each Buchanan voter.

Now a three-way runoff is held. If Bush wins a majority, he wins the election. If no candidate wins a majority of votes, the last (third-place) candidate gets eliminated. Votes for that candidate are transferred to the remaining candidates according to voters' rankings. The computer holds runoffs until one candidate wins a majority.

Does it sounds complicated? Yes, but let me qualify that answer four ways.

1. It sounds more complicated than it is.

2. It's not more complicated than presidential balloting in the Electoral College, and not every presidential voter understands the Electoral College.

3. As voters, we don't have to do the vote transfers. Computer software handles that for us.

4. Ranking candidates isn't complicated. We do it all the time at the video store. You go there, intending to rent The Candidate. If that's out, you plan to rent The Manchurian Candidate. If that's not available, you have a third choice, Bulworth. And so on.

Do some voters get more votes than others? Nope. One person, one vote. One person, one video. You're ranking your choices.

In a five-candidate race, do you have to rank all five candidates? No; IRV still works if you rank four, three, or even one of the candidates. It's as if you didn't go to the polls in one of the runoffs.

Ireland uses Instant Runoff Voting to elect its president. Australia elects its House of Representatives using IRV. Cambridge, Mass., uses a variation to elect the city council. Last year, a British commission recommended electing the House of Commons by IRV. In 1999, a commission in Vermont recommended that all statewide office-holders be chosen by Instant Runoff Voting.

Why? Because IRV is more fair. The candidate with the ultimate majority wins. Voters don't have to play strategic games and worry that a vote for Nader helps Bush. It will probably increase civility too. Under IRV, Gore's surrogates wouldn't trash Nader, because Gore wants the second-choice votes of Nader's voters.

(I'm indebted to the Center for Voting and Democracy for the explanation of and arguments for IRV.)

To channel your idealism and zeal for reform, work for IRV, instead of voting for Nader. It pains me to write these words. But voting for Nader before we have achieved IRV is putting the cart before the horse.

Ken Bresler is a plain English consultant in Newton, Mass. Contact him at 617-964-5080 or Contact the Center for Voting and Democracy at 6930 Carroll Ave., Suite 901 Takoma Park, MD 20912; phone: 301-270-4616; website:

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