Stop playing chicken with voters

It’s election time, and once again we’re hearing an epithet so often applied to third-party presidential candidates: “spoiler.”

I heard it in 1980, when my face was pinned on dart boards by angry Democrats who accused me of helping Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter. Ross Perot and Ralph Nader were also attacked for daring to introduce new ideas and approaches to voters.

This year’s targets are former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party, former Virginia Congressman Virgil Goode of the Constitution Party and the Green Party’s Jill Stein. As former Republicans, Johnson and Goode have faced particularly vigorous efforts to deny them spots on state ballots. All three candidates were blocked from participating in presidential debates.

The problem is that under current state laws, presidential candidates are able to win all of a state’s electoral votes with a minority of the vote. In 1992, Ross Perot’s strong performance led to only one state being won with more than 50 percent of the vote. In 2000, Al Gore lost Florida and the presidency by 537 votes even as Ralph Nader won more than 181 times that margin in the state.

Finger-pointing about “spoilers” happens in states too. The most surprising example is in Maine, where the Democrats’ U.S. Senate nominee trails a Republican and independent Angus King. Now some Democrats are asking their nominee to drop out in order to avoid a vote-split – well aware that in 2010, a Republican defeated a moderate independent with just 39 percent, with the Democrat again in the “spoiler” role in third.

Because of the potential of split votes, plurality voting forces many Americans to vote for a lesser choice candidate rather than one they actually want. Voters who refuse to compromise may perversely help elect the candidate they dislike the most. Either way, they lose.

It’s time for major party leaders to stop playing chicken with voters and instead uphold majority rule with a straightforward reform. Instant runoff voting (IRV) would allow Americans to achieve the basic goal of representative democracy – electing the candidate with the most support – while ending the concept of “spoiler.”

With IRV, voters get to rank candidates in order of choice: first, second and third. A candidate can win with a majority of first choices. If there’s no majority winner, the last place candidate is eliminated, and that candidate’s backers have their votes added to the totals of their compromise choice. This process continues until there’s a majority winner.

IRV is a proven voting method. It’s used to elect Ireland’s president, London’s mayor and Australia’s House of Representatives. American cities using IRV include Oakland, Calif.; San Francisco; Minneapolis; St. Paul, Minn.; and Portland, Maine. New voting machines are making IRV all the easier to implement.

Traditional runoffs provide another reform option. States could hold a September first round and a November runoff between the top two candidates. Runoffs are more costly and complicated than asking voters to indicate a second and third choice, but still better than the status quo.

So the next time you hear a politician talk about “spoilers,” tell them to stop complaining and start standing up for voters. Major party leaders have nothing to fear if truly believing in their own ability to win electoral majorities. Let’s have IRV in our presidential elections by 2016.

Anderson, a former congressman from Illinois, was an independent candidate for president in 1980 and serves on the board of FairVote, a nonpartisan electoral reform organization.