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Biweekly Column
Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Electoral Yawns

Dennis Fox

September 26, 2002

Last week's election must make even the do-your-duty-hold-your-breath-and-vote bloc wonder if there might be a better way to run our so-called democracy. Fortunately, there is. Unfortunately, we're not likely to use it.

In the Democratic primary for governor, the winning Shannon O'Brien received one in three votes cast in the four-person race. Since more than two-thirds of registered voters didn't vote, and since even in Massachusetts not everyone registers, the moderate O'Brien was the choice of fewer than one in ten voting-age citizens. That's not much of a mandate to go head-to-head in November against Republican wonderboy Mitt Romney.

That's also not much of a mandate for our political system. When most voters stay home, theorists worry about lowered legitimacy, and the usual pundits harangue people to get off their duffs and out to the voting booth. Yet when O'Brien and Romney fight for likely voters in the uncommitted middle, they'll spend just about no effort talking to the true majority: likely nonvoters.

The same dynamic was evident elsewhere last week. In every statewide Massachusetts race with more than two candidates, the victor got a plurality, not a majority. That satisfies our winner-take-all norms, but it doesn't inspire those who fantasize that someday they might vote for someone they admire without being guilt-tripped in return.

Decades ago I received an early lesson in practical politics when my father explained he couldn't vote for the candidate he thought best -- I forget the race -- because his favorite could not possibly win. So he picked the lesser of the two leading evils. A vote for his real choice would be "wasted."

We'll hear this lesson repeatedly in the next six weeks: Don't vote for the Green Party's Jill Stein, the Dems will scold, because you'll just help Romney. Republicans will likewise claim a vote for Libertarian Carla Howell just helps O'Brien. Although Stein and Howell might cancel each other out, the pressure to vote for winnable mediocrity will be intense.

Stein's campaign manager notes there was little pressure on Robert Reich to stay out of the Democratic primary race to avoid hurting Warren Tolman's chances, and little pressure on Tolman to drop out to help Reich. Since more voters opted for one of these two liberals than voted for O'Brien, a single liberal might have prevailed. It seems unfair to call the Greens spoilers when Democrats do such a good job spoiling things for themselves.

The solution? Let citizens vote for the candidate they really prefer without helping elect someone they detest.

In a run-off election system, for example, when no candidate gets a majority, a second election is held among the top vote-getters. That way, people can vote for a Green or Libertarian in the first round -- or even a liberal Democrat -- and still vote for the lesser evil later. An easier option is instant runoff voting, in which voters rank-order all candidates. If there's no majority winner, the bottom candidate is eliminated and second-choice votes are distributed; the process continues until someone wins.

The Greens have emphasized instant runoffs since even before Ralph Nader disrupted the 2000 presidential race. But, if only for self-preservation, the Democrats should push it, too. The system would help progressive Democrats prevail in primaries. It would make now-inevitable challenges from Greens less threatening. And it would end the embarrassment of asking people not to vote for the best candidate.

Indeed, Democrats and Greens might work out a deal. Stein, whose poll numbers already spell trouble for O'Brien and whose impressive profile will rise in coming gubernatorial debates, could offer to withdraw, on one condition: O'Brien and the Democratic politicos who control the legislature pledge to institute instant runoff voting in future elections.

I doubt the Democrats would agree. They'd rather keep their legislative stranglehold and maintain the party's all-things-to-all-people blandness, even if it means losing at the top. So come November I'll root for the Greens, and maybe even for the half-right Libertarians, and for any other party seeking to create something closer to democracy.

And if I do head for the voting booth, I won't waste my vote by simply opting for more of the same.

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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