To Nader or not to Nader, that is the question. A debate over whether Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader is a savior or a spoiler has raged for months among progressives. Neither argument satisfies, however, because both are partly right. Votes for Nader instead of Al Gore in a close election really could elect George Bush, with negative consequences for women, minorities, workers and the environment. Yet without Nader, centrist Democrats could bury progressivism even deeper.
Given Nader’s remarkable career and the potential of his campaign to build on new movements for fair trade, fair elections and fair wages, the very debate over his campaign reveals a serious flaw in our antiquated electoral rules: Voting for your favorite candidate can lead to the election of your least favorite candidate. Providing the means to express one’s real views and insuring majority rule are basic requirements of democracy. But our current system badly fails these tests.
Fortunately, the British, Australians and Irish have a simple solution: instant runoff voting (IRV). They share our tradition of electing candidates by plurality–a system whereby voters have one vote, and the top vote-getter wins–but they now also use IRV for most important elections. Mary Robinson was elected President of Ireland by IRV. Labor Party maverick Ken Livingstone was elected mayor of London. The Australian legislature has been elected by IRV for decades. States could implement IRV right now for all federal elections, including the presidential race, without changing federal law or the Constitution.
IRV simulates a series of runoff elections, but in a single round of voting that corrects the flaws of runoffs and plurality voting. At the polls, people vote for their favorite candidate, but they also indicate their second, “runoff,” choice and subsequent choices. If a candidate receives a majority of first choices, the election is over. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and a runoff round of counting occurs. In this round your ballot counts for your top-ranked candidate still in the race. The eliminated candidate is no longer a “spoiler” because the votes of that candidate’s supporters go to their runoff choice. Rounds of counting continue until there is a majority winner.
Imagine this year’s presidential race with IRV. Nader supporters worried about George Bush could rank Nader first and Gore second. Suppose Bush won 45 percent of first choices in a key state, Gore 44 percent, Nader 9 percent and the rest 2 percent. Under current rules, Bush wins. But with IRV, after Nader loses in the instant runoff, his supporters would propel Gore above 50 percent and defeat Bush. Rather than contribute to Gore’s defeat, Nader could help stop Bush, while delivering a message to Gore: Watch your step on trade, political reform and the environment.
Freed from the spoiler stigma, Nader could more easily gain access to the presidential debates, inform and mobilize a progressive constituency and win more votes. Higher turnout and increased attention to progressive issues could move the political center and help Democrats retake Capitol Hill. The Green Party could gain a real foothold. In other words, his campaign would be a win-win, rewarding the energy of young activists, whose belief in electoral politics would be put at risk by a weak Nader performance.