By Robert Richie and Steven Hill
California has become home to this year's biggest political circus.
Governor Gray Davis may be booted out in a special recall election. His replacement could be...almost anyone, ranging from previous Republican losers Bill Simon and Bill Riordan to Arnold "The Terminator" Schwarzenegger to pornographer Larry Flynt to the Green Party's Peter Camejo.
One of the reasons for the chaotic uncertainty of Davis' possible replacement is that the first-place finisher will take office no matter how small the percentage of their vote. Twenty percent, fifteen percent, no amount is too small, in this "highest vote-getter wins" roll of the dice.
For a sense of what that means, how does "President Pat Buchanan" sound?
In 1996, Buchanan "won" the New Hampshire primary with barely 25% of the vote. If the Republican field had remained divided, Buchanan could have ridden similar plurality victories to the Republican nomination despite clearly not being the party's majority choice.
As happens in every big-candidate field with plurality voting, this fall much attention will focus on which California candidates are "spoilers." Did independent John Anderson "spoil" Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential race? How much did Ross Perot hurt George Bush in 1992? Did Ralph Nader elect George W. Bush in 2000?
Having a range of strong candidates participate seemingly should strengthen democracy, providing voters with more opportunity to consider issues, a wider range of political debate, and greater incentives to vote. But the plurality voting system makes it possible for the highest vote-getter to win, even if that candidate is not preferred by a majority of voters. That turns democratic principles on their head.
We should no longer accept a system where credible candidates are dismissed as mere spoilers, and where voting for your favorite presidential or gubernatorial candidate can contribute directly to the election of your least favorite -- particularly if that candidate is opposed by a majority. Even as California showcases the bizarre realities of plurality voting, sensible alternatives exist.
Other cities and nations use a method known as instant runoff voting.
With the instant runoff, voters select their favorite candidate, and at the same time can indicate their runoff choices by ranking their choices as 1, 2 and 3. If a candidate receives a majority of first choices, the election is over. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and a runoff round of counting occurs. In this runoff round, your ballot counts for your top-ranked candidate still in the race.
Runoff rounds continue until there is a majority winner.
By adopting instant runoff voting in all of our big races for executive offices, we would determine a true majority winner in one election and banish the spoiler concept. Voters would not have to calculate possible unintended consequences of voting for their favorite candidate, and ending up with their least favorite. Voters would be liberated to vote for the candidates they truly like, because if their first choice didn't win their runoff vote would go to their second choice.
Under this system, in 2000 those liberals who liked Ralph Nader but worried about George Bush could have ranked Nader first and Al Gore second. Similarly, hard-line conservatives that year could have ranked Pat Buchanan first and George Bush second. Rather than contributing to Gore's or Bush's defeat, Nader and Buchanan instead could have stimulated debate and mobilized new voters. And the winner would have had to demonstrate majority support, as neither Bush nor Gore won a majority of the vote in Florida or the nation.
Our primitive voting system is our elections' real spoiler. Instant runoff voting would give us a more participatory, vital democracy, where candidates could be judged on their merits, and the will of the majority would prevail. Voters would be free to vote their hopes, instead of their fears. California has led the nation many times in the past. The nightmare of the impending recall should spur California to lead in changing its "plurality wins all" method to a fairer, more sensible method like instant runoff voting.
Robert Richie is executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org) and Steven Hill is the Center's senior analyst and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics" (www.FixingElections.com).) For more information, contact: PO Box 60037, Washington, DC 20039