Restoring democracy

New ballots for Sacramento could implement Instant Runoff Voting and end the “spoiler” argument

Peter Miguel Camejo could play a spoiler role in this November’s race for governor.

Peter Miguel Camejo could play a spoiler role in this November’s race for governor.

Courtesy Of Peter Miguel Camejo for Governor

The outcome of the botched and besmirched presidential election of 2000 still makes some Democrats flinch at the names “Nader” and “Green Party.” And some might fear that another Green, gubernatorial candidate Peter Miguel Camejo, could act as a spoiler again this year, helping Republican Bill Simon to a victory by siphoning crucial votes away from Governor Gray Davis.

This kind of thinking leaves all third-party candidates in the difficult position of trying to grow their constituency without being perceived as spoilers. Sensitive to the criticism, the Greens are proposing that Californians look at potential election reforms that could improve upon the two-party system, do away with the whole spoiler phenomenon and return California to a working democracy.

Their view of a working democracy is when government reflects the will of the majority of citizens. That’s not the case now, given voter turnout and the fact that each vote represents a single preference. For example, our governor received votes from only 24 percent of eligible voters. (In the general election of 1998, according to data published by the University of California Regents at their Web site, 20.8 million Californians were eligible to vote, but only 8.6 million chose to. Davis won with only 4.8 million votes.)

Larry Shupe, the Green candidate for secretary of state, insists that he’s the man to reinvigorate democracy in California. As chief elections officer, he would push for proportional representation, carving California into multi-seat districts and distributing the seats among parties in proportion to their share of the popular vote. This would end our winner-take-all system, which leaves smaller voting blocs without any representation in the Legislature.

He also wants to implement Same Day Voter Registration (which is Proposition 52 on this November’s ballot), allowing eligible voters to just show up at the polls without having to register at least two weeks in advance. And he would support publicly financed elections to avoid “second-class citizenship for the majority of people who cannot make large contributions to politicians.”

Such reforms could drag reluctant voters back to the polls, but to avoid being labeled the spoilers, third-party candidates might have to look to other reforms, including Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), which could help the Greens break through the glass ceiling and avoid the whole spoiler thing once and for all.

IRV allows a voter to go to the polls once and choose their first, second and third candidates for office. If no candidate wins a clear majority (50 percent plus one vote) once the votes are tallied, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and his supporters’ votes are handed to their second-choice candidates. The votes are recalculated, and recalculated again until one candidate receives a majority.

A reform touted by the Greens for more than 10 years, based on its success and popularity in Europe and Australia, IRV was approved by voters in San Francisco last March and will receive its first test in 2003. If the Greens and other reformers such as the League of Women Voters, Californians for Election Reform, and the Center for Voting and Democracy have anything to do with it, IRV will make its way over to Sacramento, as soon as 2004, either as a local initiative or as a bill for one of our state legislators to champion.

In San Francisco, city elections have traditionally been settled by runoffs held in December. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported in 1999, “five of the past six mayoral elections have been decided in runoff elections.” But in December 2001, the runoff for city attorney attracted a dismal 16 percent of voters, making a mockery of the idea of majority rule. In March of this year, San Franciscans chose IRV as an alternative to traditional runoffs.

Consider how IRV would work if we chose state officers by majority rather than by plurality (the greatest number of votes, even if they add up to less than 50 percent).

A liberal Californian chooses Camejo for his first choice and Davis for his second choice this November, but let’s say it’s a tight race and no candidate wins a clear majority. Sophisticated, computerized voting equipment eliminates the candidate with the fewest votes—let’s say Camejo—and our hypothetical voter’s vote is transferred to his second choice. When the votes are recalculated, maybe Davis picks up enough second choice votes to win over Simon by majority.

An even more telling example comes in looking at the presidential race of 2000, where most reluctant Democrats knew a vote for Ralph Nader would only put George Bush in office. The minority of voters who voted for Nader anyway would likely have loved the option to vote for Al Gore in a runoff, whether instant or otherwise. And if Gore absorbed Nader’s votes, he would have won the election.

The net effect is that people get to vote their values without worrying about handing the election to the greater of the two evils. And in the process third parties can build a base of support. With a greater portion of the vote comes more media attention, an opportunity to debate the big boys, and more campaign donations.

But even in this scenario, Camejo and Shupe and all the other third-party candidates might still lose, just like in a regular runoff. But that’s the point. It’s not that different from a regular runoff—except for the fact that we taxpayers didn’t shell out a few million dollars for a second round of elections (it was estimated that San Francisco’s runoff for city attorney cost $2 million, or $29 per vote), and we didn’t listen to months of mud-slinging between the two most popular candidates before going resolutely back to the polls.

IRV has opponents who say that the system is too difficult for voters to understand, or that it’s too expensive to buy equipment that can tabulate a ranked ballot. But IRV supporters feel that the real resistance comes from business interests, politicians and campaign managers who fear the change would weaken their positions.

“Everyone is suspicious of change,” said Paula Lee, an IRV supporter from the League of Women Voters who’s rallying public support for IRV in El Dorado County. “Campaign consultants know how to win now.”

Lee noted that negative campaigning, while brutal, is a very effective strategy in a head-to-head runoff. But such campaigning also leads to voter apathy. Traditionally, fewer people vote in runoffs than in general elections.

Lee imagines that with IRV, campaigning would change for the better. Candidates would have to appeal to one another’s constituencies, since each candidate might have to rely on second choice votes in order to win a majority. They might be less likely to indulge in negative campaigning that would anger their opponents’ supporters.

Lee looked for support for IRV from the Board of Supervisors in El Dorado County, but found that the county couldn’t stomach the expense of buying new voting equipment when its current equipment functioned just fine. But, she says, that’s why Sacramento is the ideal place for an active IRV campaign.

As one of the California counties ordered to replace its voting equipment before the 2004 presidential election, Sacramento is currently reviewing bids from six vendors. Election Manager Alice Jarboe believes that original request for bids specified that vendors should be able to handle a ranked ballot.

But in Sacramento, IRV is just beginning to get the attention of local activists. Pete Martineau, director of Californians for Election Reform, says that he’d like to get an initiative on the ballot in Sacramento, but probably not before 2004. He expects some resistance.

Martineau remembered confronting San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown after a Press Club luncheon in May. “What are the political implications of Instant Runoff Voting?” he asked.

Brown, Martineau remembered, was mortified that a candidate could win the highest number of votes during an election, and still lose because he or she didn’t have enough second- or third-choice votes to gain a majority in the computerized runoff.

But that’s the point of democracy, Martineau told SN&R in frustration. Any candidate who was only preferred by a minority of the people shouldn’t be in office.