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High Leverage Proposals for Electoral and Political Transformation


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by Tom Atlee

June 2003





Handle the problems associated with the U.S. two-party system with MULTI-CANDIDATE VOTING and MULTI-CANDIDATE DEBATES. Third party candidates don't have a realistic chance in U.S. elections -- not only because voters are unaware of them and what they stand for, but because having to vote for only one candidate means that a citizen's vote for a third-party candidate can effectively support the mainstream candidate they like least. Changing this requires breaking the two-party deadlock both in voting and in media access.


Multi-Candidate Voting

Two simple types of multi-candidate voting make particular sense to me -- INSTANT RUN-OFF VOTING (IRV), which has many proponents and DOUBLE PREFERENCE VOTING (DPV), which is a new idea.

In INSTANT RUNOFF VOTING (IRV), voters vote for as many candidates as they want, listing them in order of preference -- first choice, second choice, third choice, etc. If no candidate gets a majority when the first choices are tallied, then the second choices of voters whose first choice didn't win (starting with the smallest parties) are tallied until one candidate has a majority. If these second choices are all tallied and no candidate has a majority, then the third choices are tallied, etc. Since this can all be computerized and done automatically, it is like having instantaneous run-off elections. Since this system would allay third party voters' fears about "throwing away their votes," more of them would make third party candidates their first choice (with a major party candidate as a second choice), giving a clearer picture of actual support for third parties. For more information, see .

In DOUBLE-PREFERENCE VOTING (DPV) voters simply vote for two different candidates (unless they only want to vote for one). With no preference rating, there is no run-off. All votes are tallied together and the winner is the candidate with the most votes. The winner almost certainly receives a majority. (Interestingly, in recent US Presidential elections, winners have seldom won by any kind of majority, which raises serious questions about even the apparency of "majority rule.") As with IRV, DPV allows us to see the level of support third parties have. Note that because each voter can vote twice, the total votes in these elections will always be between 100% and 200% of the total number of voters. For example, in the 2000 presidential elections, the percentage of voters who voted for each candidate might have been
Democrat candidate Gore 54%
Republican candidate Bush 52%
Green candidate Nader 25%
Reform candidate Buchanan 18%
Libertarian candidate Browne 7%
Constitution candidate Phillips 6%
Natural Law candidate Haglin 4%
and Other candidates 9%
(for a total of 175% -- meaning 25% of the electorate
voted for only one candidate).

(For a discussion of why I prefer DPV to IRV, see the end of this page)


Multi-Candidate Debates

Presidential TV debates are run by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a joint creation of the Democratic and Republican parties, who require 15% poll support before a third-party candidate can join the debates. Many states have laws or traditions that also effectively exclude third party candidates from this most potent and popular form of political engagement. These practices not only silence candidates, but silence new ideas that could excite the electorate, shake up the status quo and broaden creative engagement in public issues. Including third party candidates in debates therefore provides a public service even when they don't stand a chance of winning the election. Here are four approaches:

Whichever multi-candidate debate approach is used, it could well be applied to any other public forum in which media provide free access to the leading candidates either voluntarily or by regulation.

At this time, there is no national legislation calling for either MULTI-CANDIDATE VOTING SYSTEMS or MULTI-CANDIDATE DEBATES. However, any of the Congresspeople and Senators running for the Presidency (or for their own seats in Congress) COULD sponsor such legislation -- and ANY candidate could call for it and add it to their platform. For obvious reasons, the likelihood of any major party candidate doing that without LOTS of us demanding it is small.



The leading parties in the U.S. -- both of which are controlled by long-standing special interests, particularly corporate interests -- play on public fears of each other's victory to impede the growth of any third party. Thanks to their well-funded PR manipulations and press control, probably 80% of the voters don't even know that viable alternatives exist. And those few voters who prefer a third party -- citizens whose votes could swing the election in (the usual) close races between the major parties -- are loath to "waste their vote" by voting for their favorite third party. That could deprive their "lesser of two evils" major candidate of precious votes, thus helping elect the "greater of two evils" major candidate. (This was exemplified in the election of Bush and the backlash against Greens and their candidate Ralph Nader who were accused of "stealing votes from Gore.")

Instant Run-Off Voting was designed to handle such circumstances. However, since the smallest parties have their second choices counted first in a run-off, the closer a major candidate is to winning, the more impact the smallest parties have on the outcome. Major third parties like the Greens could theoretically not even play a role, since their second choices would only be counted at the end, if necessary. So I wonder: Why not begin the recount by distributing the second-preference votes of the LARGEST third party, instead of the smallest?

Furthermore -- and possibly most importantly -- Instant Run-Off Voting can hide support for third parties because the second preferences of most voters (those whose first choice was one of the two leading parties) never get tallied. In the year 2000 presidential election, all the Greens who voted for Gore would not have been counted, nor those Democrats who sort of liked the Greens and would have given Nader their second choice.

Double-preference voting (DPV) handles those problems. The only shortcoming I can see with DPV is that it doesn't provide voters with the range of preferences that IRV provides, nor a prioritizing of those preferences. However, most of the lower-than-first-preference votes in an IRV election are never counted anyway, whereas both preferences by each voter count in a DPV election.

Some will say that there should be a rating system so that a voter's first choice would count more than their second choice. While this is theoretically more "fair," in most cases it wouldn't make much useful impact on the results and would definitely complicate the system, making it harder for people to understand it, thus impeding its adoption.

The fact is that if a person feels VERY strongly about their favored candidate, they can always simply vote for that candidate and ignore the rest. In doing that, they have impacted the results in a way that clearly indicates their preference. But I suspect most people would realize that, for the foreseeable future, a major party candidate is going to win anyway, even if votes are rated. The fact that they can choose a third party is a way of telling the major parties to take that third party's views into account or risk being ultimately replaced. This greatly empowers the electorate and opens the door for more rapid evolution of the political landscape.

All that said, IRV has a tremendous advantage in that thousands of people already know about it, and it has been hotly debated for years, whereas (to my knowledge) DPV is brand new and has not been either publicized or seasoned in the heat of debate. Hopefully that debate will start now, even as we promote IRV.