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Opinion

Tired of partisan gridlock? Reforming electoral rules gives voters real choice.

American voters are so tired of two-party stalemates that it's only a matter of time before an independent wins the White House. But 'winner-take-all' electoral rules limit candidates. Needed election reforms will give voters fairer representation in Congress and the White House.

By John B. Anderson / September 1, 2011



Washington

We have entered another season of political discontent, with serious talk of a third party campaign for president. Since 1968, this phenomenon has resulted in a series of independent challengers who changed campaign debate and potentially outcomes: George Wallace in 1968, my own campaign in 1980, Ross Perot in 1992, and Ralph Nader in 2000. That amounts to roughly one significant independent challenge every dozen years.

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By this calendar, Americans can expect another such presidential campaign in 2012. But while it’s just a matter of time before an independent wins the White House, America’s “winner-takes-all” voting system suppresses potential support for independent candidates and blocks their fair representation in Congress. We need new rules better designed for the realities of today’s politics.

Americans’ desire for independents at all levels of government is clear. Independents and third-party candidates have won recent gubernatorial elections in Alaska, Connecticut, Maine, Minnesota, and, in 2010, Rhode Island. Last year, independent candidates also finished ahead of major party nominees in races for governor and US Senate in Alaska, Colorado, Florida, and Maine.

Ross Perot’s presidential candidacy in 1992 foreshadows what’s possible. Mr. Perot earned 19 percent of the vote despite an erratic campaign that included leaving the race for two months. If he had instead maintained the 39 percent he polled in early June, he would have won a comfortable Electoral College majority.

Candidates today have the added benefit of our information revolution. The kind of Internet-driven self-organizing that benefited Howard Dean in 2004, Ron Paul and Barack Obama in 2008, and the Tea Party in 2010 will certainly boost a compelling independent candidate’s outreach and following.

Looking to 2012, Americans can expect the Green Party and Libertarians to field candidates, while new groups like Ruck.US and No Labels are organizing independent-minded voters online. Americans Elect seems on its way to securing ballot access in all 50 states for an independent candidate to be chosen next spring.

Amid the stalemate in Washington and in several state legislatures, the value of independent candidates seems obvious. My own presidential campaign in 1980 provides an example of the value of more choices. With a 20-year record in Congress as a Republican able to pass legislation across party lines, paired with Patrick Lucey, the former Democratic governor of Wisconsin, as my vice presidential candidate, I represented the kind of “unity ticket” now sought by Americans Elect.

We secured ballot access in every state and captured the imagination of millions of voters. Taking on challenges that remain difficult for the major parties to confront today, we proposed moving to end our addiction to oil with a 50-cent federal tax on gasoline and to reduce our budget deficit by making hard choices involving taxes and spending.

Independent candidates aren't the real 'spoilers'

To many politicians and voters, however, I was only a “spoiler” – a candidate who is unlikely to win, but could split the majority preference for one of the major party candidates. The real spoiler is a plurality voting system that makes it possible for a presidential candidate to win all electoral votes in a state by finishing in first place, even if a majority of voters strongly oppose that candidate.

Because most states have a first-place-takes-all plurality voting system, a presidential candidate doesn’t need a majority of a state’s popular vote to win all of that state’s electoral votes. As a result, some partisans call independent challengers like me “spoilers.”

Many believe that Ralph Nader in 2000 cost Al Gore a win in the all-important state of Florida, where his vote totals dwarfed George Bush’s slim lead. Similarly, in 1992, Bill Clinton won a big Electoral College majority despite winning the majority of the popular vote in only a single state – his home state of Arkansas.

Third party candidates and independents regularly see their vote totals drop due to voters’ spoiler fears. In 1980, when polls showed me falling behind Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, many early backers decided to settle on the “lesser of two evils.” I was blocked from the final debate and finished with 7 percent of the popular vote.

Ways to combat injustice of plurality voting

But plurality voting is not mandated in our Constitution. After my campaign, both in my work as a constitutional law professor and as board chair of FairVote, I examined other ways of electing our leaders. I identified well-tested, constitutionally sound reforms that would dramatically improve our ability to avoid the “spoiler” phenomenon in multi-candidate elections for president and also provide fairer representation in elections for Congress.

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