A Viable Third Party, Instantly?

Ballot Access News had quite an intriguing scoop a few weeks ago: The Vermont legislature is likely to vote to make the state the first ...
by | February 7, 2008

Ballot Access News had quite an intriguing scoop a few weeks ago: The Vermont legislature is likely to vote to make the state the first in American history to use instant-runoff voting (IRV) for congressional general elections.

For those not familiar with IRV, it's a system where voters rank the candidates, rather than simply voting for one. If one candidate has an outright majority of first-choice votes, he or she wins. Otherwise, whoever receives the fewest first-place votes is eliminated and the second choices of that candidate's voters are then added to the others' totals.

This process continues until one candidate has more than half the votes. IRV is currently used in municipal elections in a handful of places from San Francisco, California to Cary, North Carolina.

Yesterday, I spoke with Vermont Rep. David Zuckerman, a longtime IRV supporter. He confirmed that the bill's prospects look good, although a gubernatorial veto is possible. Zuckerman said the measure doesn't have a veto-proof majority.

Debates over instant-runoff voting are always interesting because they tease out competing conceptions of democracy. Supporters argue that democracy demands we elect the person who is acceptable to the largest number of people, which IRV produces. Opponents of IRV argue that first choices are all that should matter and that there's nothing wrong with plurality winners.

IRV is also sometimes opposed on the grounds that it might cause voter confusion or lead to behind-the-scenes deals between candidates. Such a deal could look like the West Virginia Republican presidential convention on Tuesday.

I thought Zuckerman made a pretty good case, however, that these types of deals are unlikely in a general election. It's much easier to boss around a few delegates than to control tens of thousands of voters. If a deal seemed ideologically incoherent  -- if, say, the Republicans and the Socialist Workers Party encouraged their supporters to list each other as second choices -- the press would not be kind.

The biggest impact of IRV might be to make third parties viable. With IRV, liberals in 2000 wouldn't have been tormented over the thought of a vote for Nader electing Bush. They could have voted for Nader as a first choice and Gore second.

In this way, if IRV were implemented nationally, it would eliminate "spoiler" fears, one of the key factors that perpetuates the dominance of the two major parties (more so than their popularity with the public). Zuckerman, a member of the Vermont Progressive Party, is one of only 21 state legislators nationwide who is neither a Democrat nor a Republican (not counting Nebraska's non-partisan legislature), out of nearly 7,400 total.

For now, legislators in Vermont are focusing only on congressional races because there are constitutional concerns about applying IRV to state races. In particular, there's a possible conflict with Vermont's unusual constitutional rule where elections for governor and lieutenant governor are thrown into the legislature if no one receives a majority of the vote. Still, it's not hard to imagine that, if voters like IRV on the federal level, they would demand that all elections use the instant-runoff system.

So would IRV help the Progressives in Vermont? Not unless the voters liked Progressive ideas, Zuckerman notes. "What IRV would allow," he says, "is voters to vote with their true beliefs."

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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