We’re headed into an election year with Americans in overwhelming numbers looking for a dramatic change in direction. Progressives have already pushed some major issues onto the table – ending the war in Iraq, affordable healthcare, alternative energy, global warming and trade. But the limits of the current debate are also increasingly apparent: where’s the agenda to deal seriously with Gilded Age inequality? With the tsunami of foreclosures precipitated by the subprime mortgage crisis? Where’s the public investment agenda to address the staggering investment deficit in infrastructure? Where’s the attention to poverty and stunning racial inequalities – from childhood poverty to criminal justice? And, as The Nation pointed out in a recent special issue on “The US & The World: 2008 & Beyond,” leading candidates of both parties remain committed to increasing a military budget that is already as large as the rest of the world’s military spending combined.

The emerging pro-democracy movement is working to address these symptoms of our downsized politics of excluded alternatives, as well as much of what ails our broken voting system: not only reliable voting machines, but Election Day registration, fighting 21st century Jim Crow tactics , and getting the obscene piles of money out of our politics. (See Ari Berman’s post on how it’s now estimated that spending for the congressional and presidential campaigns will top $5 billion!)

Another important step towards advancing our democracy is implementing instant runoff voting (IRV), and it’s making headway these days at the state and local levels, and showing promise for federal elections too. With IRV, voters can vote their conscience and not worry that a vote is being “wasted” on someone who “can’t win.” IRV promotes greater debate and more alternatives, and also results in the winning candidate having the support of the majority of voters. Here’s how it works: if four candidates were on a ballot, you would rank them one to four. When the votes are tabulated, if one of the candidates is the first choice for 50 percent of the voters, then he or she wins. If not, then the last-place candidate is eliminated, and if you voted for that candidate, your vote in the next round of tabulations is added to the vote totals of the candidate you ranked as your second choice. The process continues until one candidate receives over 50 percent of the vote.

In Australia, IRV was introduced in 1918, and has historically benefited parties on both the left and the right. Last Saturday, it helped the Australian Labor Party – but not before the Australian Greens were able to run a strong campaign and collect 8 percent of the parliamentary vote, and perhaps push debate further on issues like climate change and the Iraq War than Labor wanted to go. In the initial tabulation Labor won only 44 percent of the vote, but with IRV most of the Green votes ended up being awarded to Labor. The party had worked hard to be the second choice of Green voters, and designated former Midnight Oil lead Singer Peter Garrett – “a-rock-star-environmentalist-turned-politico” – as their likely environment minister. In the end, Labor ended up with 54 percent of the two-party tally.

“What a difference a fair voting method like instant runoff voting can make,” Rob Richie, Executive Director of FairVote told me. “With IRV, Greens not only didn’t split the vote and help elect candidates opposing their positions, but they got to make their case for change in a way that almost certainly transformed majority opinion on the environment and Iraq and made the Labor Party more responsive to that opinion. And with proportional voting in the senate, the Greens have ongoing power, all the better positioned to help hold Labor accountable to its campaign promises.”

In the US, IRV has been chosen by voters in more than a dozen city ballot initiatives. Most recently, voters in Sarasota, FL and Aspen, CO elected to move to IRV by a three-to-one margin. In Pierce County, WA 67 percent of voters chose to keep IRV on track for next year’s county executive race. The city council of Santa Fe, NM gave unanimous preliminary approval to place IRV on the March 2008 ballot. Finally, in Vermont, IRV looks promising for congressional elections next year – it’s passed the state senate and there are encouraging signs it will pass in the house too.

In a recent op-ed , former Illinois Congressman and presidential candidate, John Anderson, advocated for IRV and noted that “one-third of all voters who are not registered as Republican or Democrat feel pressured to vote against their worst nightmare rather than their best hope…. General elections should be a marketplace of innovative ideas, and independent and third-party candidates can prevent them from becoming a showcase for an overly narrow ideological duopoly.”

Until we get a system which is more democratic – including IRV and other democracy reforms – we won’t have as effective an independent politics and as vibrant a debate as we deserve.