By Clark Rieke
The Oct. 7 Gazette cover story, “Third isn’t a charm for Iowa voters,” should remind us of the 2000 election when Al Gore had about a half-million more popular votes but George Bush became president with an edge in the electoral college vote. Green Party candidate Nader won 3 percent of the popular vote. Most agree that a solid majority of Nader voters preferred Gore, and Gore would have been the candidate that the majority would have voted for — if our voting system had a runoff election.
The Gazette article had several experts suggesting “third party candidates have the goal to publicize their issues, but the usual result of their effort is to win votes away from the major party candidate with which they have the most in common.” This is the spoiler effect.
Our two major parties prefer to accept a candidate who only wins a plurality, even if that candidate is not preferred by the majority, rather than have a voting system that levels the playing field so minor parties can give them real competition.
It is easy to level the playing field for minor parties by simply having a runoff election. A runoff guarantees that the winner is the one preferred by the majority. Voting systems with runoff elections are favored in the vast majority of democracies around the world.
The most efficient voting system with a runoff is instant runoff voting (IRV). With IRV, voters record their first and second choices during their first trip to the polls. This means, if there is a need for a runoff, voters have already recorded who they would vote for in the runoff and do not need to go to the polls again.
Once a voting system has runoff elections, the level playing field can lead to a multiparty system. The main strength of our two-party system is stability and incremental change. The main strength of a multiparty system is increased sensitivity to change.
I like the fertile middle ground of a voting system that fosters two-plus-parties. There are ways to foster a two-plus-party instant runoff voting system instead of a multiparty system. One way is to have a third seat in the general election debates. This third seat is earned by the minor party that won the most votes in the last election. That reward is a strong incentive for a minor party to learn to compromise enough to join with another minor party to become the largest minor party. All minor parties could compete to become the largest minor party and win that third seat in the next election.
With IRV, voters are free to give their support and first choice vote to any of the minor parties that represent their highest political hopes. IRV allowing a third voice and third choice in the general election debates expands both the range of leaders who are willing to get into the political arena and the political agenda. The minor party that develops an issue most voters care about, but both major parties are avoiding, has a good opportunity to become the largest minor party. The agenda is increased to a depth beyond the control of the two major parties and the control that special interests have over both major parties.
A positive example is how the candidacy of Ross Perot two decades ago led to a balanced budget. There is a reduction in negative ads because any candidate might need second-choice votes to win a majority.
These increases in the agenda and choices in elections would increase voter interest significantly. With IRV limited to two-plus-parties, a third party can be a charm.
l Clark Rieke of Cedar Rapids was a startup member of FairVoteMN.org, which persuaded Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., to use instant runoff voting. He is an associate member of the new Linn County (Iowa) Chapter of VeteransForPeace.org and is a longtime Realtor and landlord. Comments: email@example.com