Thinking Even Bigger

Just over the next horizon are even bolder reforms. They include:

Instant-Runoff Voting. With instant-runoff voting, you designate more than one choice. If your candidate isn't in the top two, your vote automatically goes to your second choice. With this system, now used for local elections in San Francisco, supporters of insurgent candidates can vote for their first choice without risking the unfortunate consequence of helping elect their last choice. If instant-runoff voting had been in effect in 2000, Al Gore -- the second choice of most Nader voters -- would have become president. As Rob Ritchie of the Center for Voting and Democracy explains, instant-runoff voting simulates runoffs, but in a single election -- thus guaranteeing that the winner is actually the choice of a majority.

The system has two big benefits: Partisans must think in terms of practical coalition politics, because candidates need to attract second-choice votes and first-choice ones, and democracy is energized, as people alienated by Tweedledum and Tweedledee are drawn into politics. Under Ireland's instant-runoff voting system, the Labour Party's Mary Robinson became the nation's first woman president and most popular politician. When first elected in 1990, she was the top choice of only 39 percent of voters -- well behind the Fianna Fail Party candidate's 44 percent. But when the third-finishing candidate's votes were reallocated, Robinson won a majority.

Winner-take-all systems like ours and Britain's are the exception. Most European democracies elect legislatures by proportional representation, and few allow a mere plurality to elect a chief executive. Ritchie and his colleagues are organizing grass-roots efforts to press for instant-runoff voting and other forms of proportional representation.

A Right-to-Vote Amendment. Remarkably, our Constitution contains numerous provisions about how leaders are chosen, but nowhere does it guarantee citizens the right to vote and to have their votes accurately recorded.

Scrap the Electoral College. Sound like a pipe dream? We almost did it in 1969, when the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed an amendment to abolish the Electoral College in favor of direct election. The measure got a majority, but it was the victim of a filibuster and never commanded the necessary two-thirds in the Senate. If it hadn't rained in Ohio on November 2, John Kerry could well have been the electoral winner but not the popular winner, leaving both parties cheated by the Electoral College in back-to-back elections. It could happen again.

Meantime, just having a popular movement to abolish the Electoral College and guarantee every citizen's right to vote would be good for American democracy.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect.

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