Imagine life in a democratic utopia. It would be a place where a majority of the people actually chooses the leader. Representatives have to at least pretend to care about the issues that matter to the voters. And more than half of the eligible citizens exercise the right to vote.

None of this may seem farfetched, but it is all far from what we have in place today. To the Democrats and the Republicans, to those who think politicians are all crooked, to the marginalized and to those who tune out all politics, some California voters are suggesting an alternative.

Earlier this month, San Francisco voters passed a referendum that may lead the way in addressing some of the most serious ills of our political institutions. By a 56 percent to 44 percent margin, they voted to adopt instant runoff voting for city government elections.

IRV is a voting system that allows people to rank their preferences among candidates. If a person’s first-choice candidate is eliminated, a vote is then tallied for the next preferred remaining candidate. Last-place candidates are eliminated until a single person holds a majority of the votes cast.

In San Francisco, a municipality that already had regular runoffs, IRV offers advantages of fiscal savings, since holding the runoff cost the state an additional $1.6-$2 million. IRV also offers a reduction of bias in runoffs currently caused by dramatic drops in turnout between first-round elections where runoffs tended to favor whites, conservatives and senior citizens.

However, if the Bay Area developments are a portent for larger scale politics, the implications of IRV could be dramatic. Most elections in the United States, including all elections for Congress and President operate on the plurality system. This means that a significant number of officials, including most U.S. presidents, are elected without the support of a majority of the populace. IRV ensures that a majority of voters prefer the winner to all other remaining candidates.

In the 2000 presidential election, Ralph Nader drew many votes that otherwise would have likely been cast for Al Gore. If Florida awarded its electoral votes through an IRV system, it is almost certain that enough Nader voters would have put Gore as their second choice to award the state to him. Similarly, George W. Bush would probably have won Iowa as the second choice of many Pat Buchanan voters.

In 1992, when Bill Clinton won the presidency with only 43 percent of the vote, IRV could have shifted several states where Ross Perot won a large number of votes. This may or may not have changed the outcome, but it certainly would have resulted in a winner who could claim majority support.

IRV benefits both third party candidates and the major party candidates who would gain votes as people’s second choice. Voters would no longer face a decision, as Nader puts it, between voting their hearts or their fears. They could vote their third-party hearts as a first-rated preference and their fear of Democrats or Republicans as their second.

IRV is being seriously considered for statewide elections in Alaska and Vermont. Fifty-one town meetings were recently held in Vermont on the issue. Forty-nine of them endorsed IRV.

IRV is not the only proposed reform that aims to solve distortions created by the plurality system.

Under even the fairest majoritarian system, it is theoretically feasible that 49 percent of the voters could have absolutely no representation. Furthermore, with single member legislative districts, it is quite possible that a majority of the people find themselves represented by a minority of legislators.

To visualize this, consider a nation with 10 equal-sized legislative districts, each of which elects one representative through plurality voting. If party A wins six districts with 51 percent of the vote and party B wins 4 districts with one-hundred percent of the vote, party A will secure a majority in the legislature even though it will have received under a third of the popular vote.

Many democracies that were founded later than the United States realized this problem and created electoral systems to address it, known as proportional representation systems. In its purest form, proportional representation allocates seats precisely on the percentage of national votes for a party. More common cases involve creating multi-representative districts, which maintain an avenue for constituent contact while more accurately representing the real breakdown of a district.

In many states, minority parties are absolutely unrepresented on the national level. Multi-representative districts could make the votes of Massachusetts’s Republicans and Oklahoma’s Democrats more than symbolic gestures. This system would also reduce the parties’ ability to distort electoral outcomes by drawing congressional districts. Dominant parties often try to cram as many opposing voters into one district as possible, so as to weaken opposition in all of the surrounding districts. Multi-representative districts would minimize the gains from such behavior.

Such a form of proportional representation could also allow third parties a reasonable chance of gaining seats and result in a greater variety of issues being raised on the national level. Parties facing competition from both left and right could no longer afford to ignore currently marginalized groups such as drug legalization supporters or globalization opponents. This would undoubtedly increase participation by those who feel disenchanted with two-party Republocrat politics.

All European Union nations except Britain currently use some form of proportional reprentation for national elections. Britain, the motherland of the plurality system, currently uses PR for elections to the Scottish and Welsh national parliaments, and debate is stirring on whether to adopt it for the House of Commons. The New York City school board is also elected through a proportional representation system.

Instant runoff voting and proportional representation offer promising answers to the apathy and inequities that plague our current system. Although most American elections are still determined by the outdated plurality system, support for reform has been growing rapidly.

Most promisingly, the implementation of reforms can usually be undertaken through simple majority votes at the federal, state or local levels. Although the incumbent powers would likely resist a shake-up, continued growth in popular support for IRV and proportional representation systems could force politicians towards reform. A more lively, responsive, and fair political system is not out of reach.

Brach is a senior and can be reached at jbrach@campustimes.org.



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