Their candidacies point to an easily correctable flaw in our elections: we don't require candidates to win with a majority of the vote. Instead, states typically use "plurality voting" that allows the candidate with the most votes to take office even if opposed by a majority. Plurality voting makes it far harder to hold leaders accountable - and fails to accommodate voters having more choices. It means that every Member of Congress can win re-election even if strongly opposed by most voters, and every state this fall will awards its presidential electoral votes to candidates that most voters might have opposed.
In contrast, majority voting is the international norm for presidential elections. Most nations use two-round systems, with a runoff between the top two candidates if no candidate wins a majority of the first-round vote. Ireland uses instant runoff voting that simulates a runoff process in one trip to the polls by allowing voters to rank candidates in order of choice: first, second and third.
Plurality voting works fine when elections have only two choices. But it goes haywire when more candidates run - witness the hand-wringing over Ross Perot in 1992 and Ralph Nader in 2000.
We can expect more hand-wringing this year. In a recent Rasmussen Research poll, fully 10% of likely voters said they would vote for Bob Barr or Ralph Nader if matched against Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama. Republicans are fearful that Barr will split the majority vote in his home state of Georgia and close states like Nevada, while Nader and Cynthia McKinney together easily could split Democratic majorities.
Already some partisans are decrying their candidacies, but the fact is that most Americans prefer to have voter choice. They like voter participation. They want candidates to raise tough issues. They're fans of democracy, and choice, participation and vigorous debate are rather important conditions of it. We should welcome more perspectives and more opportunities to hold major party nominees accountable.
Intriguingly, two innovators willing to advance beyond plurality voting happen to be John McCain and Barack Obama. Obama was the lead sponsor of Illinois legislation to establish instant runoff voting for certain state elections, while McCain made a ringing endorsement of its adoption for state and federal elections in a 2002 ballot measure in Alaska. Not only that - Nader, Barr and McKinney also all have been outspoken advocates of instant runoff voting.
They can take comfort that their bold stance keeps demonstrating gaining popular support. Exit poll surveys in cities implementing IRV show strong voter enthusiasm, and it has won by landslide margins in a series of ballot measures in jurisdictions like Oakland (CA), Minneapolis (MN), Sarasota (FL), Santa Fe (NM) and Pierce County (WA).
Our elected leaders can't have it both ways. If they don't like "spoilers", they can adopt instant runoff voting or runoff elections by mere statute. If not, they must live with the consequences. I know which decision most Americans want them to make.