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.
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.
To combat the injustice of plurality voting rules that we use in our presidential election, many cities, states, and nations require a separate runoff election between the top two finishers if no candidate earns a first-round majority.
A dozen cities, including Oakland, Calif., Minneapolis, Minn., and Portland, Maine, accomplish the same goal in a single election with ranked choice voting. Voters rank candidates in order of choice, with their backup rankings allowing officials to simulate an “instant runoff” to determine the winner.
Unfair representation in congressional elections
The problem of voting representation is even greater in congressional elections. It’s time to take on elections that distort fair representation in our state legislatures and Congress.
By constitutional design, Congress should be responsive to all Americans, not just hard-line partisans. While majority voting can improve the democratic outcome for presidential elections, it has its disadvantages when voting for state and congressional seats. Today all state legislators and members of Congress are elected in races where a 51 percent majority in a district can elect 100 percent of representation. In other words, 49 percent of that district might support another candidate or candidates, but the candidate who wins the majority wins the district and 100 percent representation. The remaining 49 percent of voters are not accurately or fairly represented according to their real choice.
In one example, Democrats won all 10 US House races in Massachusetts in every election over the past decade even though Republicans regularly won nearly a third of the statewide vote. If voting were proportional, Republicans would have a third of Massachusetts’ US House seats. But winner-takes-all elections skew representation. Democratic voters are experiencing similar futility in Midwestern states like Nebraska and Kansas.
Winner-takes-all elections in fact lock more than three in four US House races out of meaningful two-party competition, and of course fail to give a chance for third parties and independents to win fair representation. These elections utterly fail to reflect the spectrum of nuanced opinion among Americans, instead fueling partisan polarization and exaggerating the impact of money in swaying the votes of swing voters in the handful of close elections.
How to give voters real choice and voice
Reforming winner-takes-all elections for state legislatures and Congress may be a greater challenge than upholding majority rule with runoff systems in presidential elections, but doing so is a pre-condition for giving all voters real choices and new voices.
As a start, Congress should repeal a 1967 law that took away the power of states to adopt proportional voting systems for US House elections. As alternatives to winner-takes-all systems, proportional voting allows like minded voters to earn seats in proportion to their share of the vote – 30 percent of the vote earns 3 of 10 seats, rather than nothing, which would be the case if their chosen candidate didn’t win the most votes in their district.
As one homegrown example, from 1870 to 1980, my state of Illinois elected our state house of representatives with a proportional system called cumulative voting. Three legislators represented each district (meaning a fewer number of bigger districts), and voters could award three votes to one candidate. That simple change broke up the majority’s winner-take-all power in each district, and resulted in nearly every voter ending up with representatives from both major parties and occasionally an independent.
These reforms would make the two-party system more accountable, while allowing voters the choices they want. New technologies make them easy to implement, and their growing use in local elections demonstrates that Americans can make them work. Even if they won’t be in place nationally by 2012, the only real barriers are a failure of political imagination and fear of change.
I see the coming decade as one of other major reforms, ranging from establishing a national popular vote for president, weakening the influence of special interest money in politics, and ensuring every young American is registered to vote when reaching voting age.
Given our increasingly dysfunctional government and the appeal of third party challengers, pressure will grow on partisan dinosaurs to step aside and embrace a new politics waiting to be born: one that puts voters – and our nation – first.