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The Trouble With Nader

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I've been hearing from a lot of progressives who insist on voting for Ralph Nader or the Green Party's Cynthia McKinney in this year's presidential election, even in the swing states. These third-party voters say that they cannot vote for Barack Obama because they feel that Obama is not a true progressive. And these people worry me. It's not that I don't like what Ralph Nader and Cynthia McKinney stand for, because I do. These alternative candidates stand for things like universal healthcare, alternative energy, peace, civil liberties, fair labor, equal rights for women and minorities, and more -- all issues that are near and dear to my heart. And it's not that I don't agree that Barack Obama's policies are less than ideal, because I do. My problem with a third-party presidential vote is one of practicality. A vote for Nader or McKinney is a progressive vote flushed down the drain. If we are to believe the pollsters, the race between McCain and Obama is too close to justify a symbolic vote for a third-party candidate. Many people blame Ralph Nader for Al Gore's loss in the 2000 presidential election. For that reason, many progressive pundits urged him not to run in 2004 and similarly jeopardize John Kerry's chances. But he ran anyway. This year, it's deja vu all over again. And, all over again, I am frightened by it. As much as I appreciate the idealism of these third-party voters, the electoral process isn't set up to work in their favor. We've got a two-party system in which third-party votes are potential spoilers. But there is a way around this. Some folks are advocating for widespread use of instant-runoff voting (IRV) as a way to eliminate the spoiler effect. In this system, voters do not vote for a single candidate. Instead, they rank the candidates in order of preference. The website FairVote.org describes the vote tallying process as follows:
IRV allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference (i.e. first, second, third, fourth and so on). Voters have the option to rank as many or as few candidates as they wish, but can vote without fear that ranking less favored candidates will harm the chances of their most preferred candidates. First choices are then tabulated, and if a candidate receives a majority of first choices, he or she is elected. If nobody has a clear majority of votes on the first count, a series of runoffs are simulated, using each voter's preferences indicated on the ballot. The candidate who received the fewest first place choices is eliminated. All ballots are then retabulated, with each ballot counting as one vote for each voter's highest ranked candidate who has not been eliminated. Specifically, voters who chose the now-eliminated candidate will now have their ballots counted for their second ranked candidate -- just as if they were voting in a traditional two-round runoff election -- but all other voters get to continue supporting their top candidate. The weakest candidates are successively eliminated and their voters' ballots are redistributed to next choices until a candidate crosses a majority of votes.
This does seem to be the answer. But, unfortunately, IRV is not currently an option for most American voters. So, for now, we have to live by the two-party system -- and vote by it. If John McCain wins the presidency because of progressive votes squandered on third-party candidates, it's not just those third-party voters who will have to live with the consequences. We all will. Therefore, unless and until IRV becomes the norm in this country, Ralph Nader should stick with what he does best: Advancing the progressive agenda as an activist, not as a spoiler candidate. And the Greens should focus their efforts downballot, where they too can be effective.

 

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Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views (more...)
 

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