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Healing An Ailing Democracy

Brad Friedman and Gregory Dennis

Our nation is suffering an epidemic of electoral apathy. Voter turnout in recent local, state and national elections has reached record lows -- in 1996 some cities and towns in Massachusetts had single-digit turnouts for primary elections. In 2000 the statewide primary election drew less than 10 percent. Nationally we also face problems; during the 1998 midterm elections less than one third of eligible voters went to the polls. Despite all the hubbub surrounding the 2000 presidential election, only 51 million people, less than one quarter of all eligible voters, voted for the winner of the popular vote (Al Gore). It’s a sad fact: the average American thinks it’s not worth taking time from a busy workday to exercise this basic democratic right.

Spend some time querying non-voters about their apathy and you’ll hear the same reasons reiterated time and again. Many say their vote doesn’t make a difference. Others see little distinction between the positions of the two front-runners. More than a few support a candidate that is behind in the polls but don’t bother voting since that candidate has little chance of winning. Still others are turned off by endless negative campaigning that renders all the candidates unappealing.

Instant Runoff Voting (IRV, also known as preferential voting) could be part of an ensemble of reforms directed at healing our democracy and involving citizens more directly in the electoral process. IRV is a method of electing single-winner offices like those of governor or president. Under IRV, each voter ranks the candidates on the ballot, marking her or his first choice, second choice, and so on. After the polls close, a computer tabulates all the votes and simulates a series of “instant runoffs.” First, all the first choice votes are tallied. If any candidate has a majority of first choice votes, he or she wins. If no candidate has a majority, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated and an “instant runoff” is held between the remaining candidates. The voters who ranked the eliminated candidate as their first choice have their votes transferred to their second choice. Again, if any candidate now has a majority he or she wins; otherwise, another “instant runoff” is held by eliminating the bottom candidate and transferring those votes to the next-ranked candidate. This process of instant runoffs continues until a candidate has a majority of votes and wins the election.

Take the 2000 presidential election as an example. What result would IRV have yielded in that election? Recall that there were 4 main candidates: Bush, Gore, Nader, and Buchanan. Since no candidate had a simple majority of #1 votes, a series of instant runoffs would ensue. Let us suppose that Buchanan’s supporters largely ranked Bush as #2 and that Nader’s supporters ranked Gore as #2. Bush took 47.87 percent of the popular vote and Gore took 48.38 percent. Buchanan and Nader took 0.42 percent and 2.74 percent respectively. In the first round, Buchanan would have been eliminated since he had the least #1 support. In the second round, Buchanan’s votes would be redistributed, mostly to Bush. In that round Bush would then have 48.29 percent, Gore would have 48.38 percent and Nader 2.74 percent. Since no candidate has a majority, Nader would be eliminated and a third round would ensue. We can suppose that most of Nader’s 2.74 percent would rank Gore over Bush, so that his votes would be transferred to Gore in the next round. Then Gore would have 51.12 percent. At this point Gore would have a simple majority and would be declared the president-elect.

In contrast to our current system, IRV makes a third party vote a viable vote. Under IRV, voters can support their preferred candidate without fear that they are indirectly supporting a distasteful candidate. The 2000 presidential election in Florida is a prime example of this effect. Were Nader’s 97,488 votes transferred to Gore in a second runoff they would have comfortably covered the 537 vote gap between the two front-runners. It would be healthy for us to remove this fear from the electoral process merely for the sake of opening our national, state and local debates to new voices.

But perhaps the most appealing aspect of IRV is that it ensures that the winner has a true majority of the votes. This aspect is more prominent in primary elections where there are many candidates, no two of which are obviously front-runners. In that case, it is possible for a relatively unpopular candidate to win with the support of a small number of voters. This is what we saw in the 2002 Massachusetts Democratic gubernatorial primaries. The progressive vote was split between Tolman and Reich, permitting the bland O’Brien to steal the nomination despite weak support. Under IRV, Tolman’s and Reich’s supporters could have ranked them #1 and #2, preventing a transfer of their votes to O’Brien and ensuring that one of the candidates they liked was nominated.

Finally, IRV will discourage negative campaigning. If you believe that campaigns are a time for the public and its potential leaders to engage in a dialogue about goals and ideals then you probably find the mudslinging and extensive dwelling on non-policy issues very tiring and useless. IRV would rein in negative campaigning because candidates looking for #2 votes would not want to alienate the supporters of their opponents. This means more time for substantive debate and less time for tabloid dirt.

If you are intrigued by the idea of using IRV to elect our officials, you’ll be happy to know that IRV is not just a dream. Right now there are three pieces of legislation in the Massachusetts statehouse that would make IRV the method of voting for many elections in Massachusetts. The Web site <> also provides information. The MIT Greens and MIT Democrats are sponsoring a Forum on Voting Reform next Thursday night, Feb. 27 at 7 p.m. in room 6-120. State representative Alice Wolf, a sponsor of one of the bills, and Peter Vickery, the author of the other two, will speak on the topic of IRV and Electoral Reform.

Brad Friedman G and Gregory Dennis G are members of the MIT Greens.