Saturday November 3, 2012




Have you ever wondered why meaningful third parties never emerge? Why candidates that win primaries often do not represent the consensus of party voters? The answer is that in order to win an election in most places in America, whether in a primary or in a general election, all you need is the most votes (a plurality) instead of over half the votes (a majority).

When a candidate fails to win a majority, their victory often represents more of a process of the vote division than an ability to win a majority consensus. This process is especially acute in primaries, where there may be multiple candidates that represent one viewpoint (perhaps they are progressive, conservative, moderate, or pro-choice) against a single candidate representing the alternative viewpoint. Since putting people into power that have a consensus of the majority is the very purpose of democracy, the plurality system can literally be described as undemocratic.

The connection between the non-development of third party candidates and a plurality system is painfully obvious. Suppose John lives in Florida but does not feel the Democrats are progressive enough and he prefers the Green Party. Or suppose Jane lives in New Hampshire and does not feel the Republicans have done enough to make government smaller; so Jane wants to vote Libertarian. But then both John and Jane remember Ralph Nader in Florida in the 2000 election. Had those that voted for Nader had their votes go to their second choice, Gore would have won Florida and the election.

So with a tight election and wanting to cast a “real vote” instead of voting for a “spoiler,” progressive John votes for Obama instead of Green, and small government Jane votes for Romney instead of Libertarian.

Neither voted their heart because they did not want to “waste their vote.” The solution would be to have run-off elections when nobody has a majority.

Some argue that run-off elections are too cumbersome and expensive. They do not have to be. What if run-off elections could be instantaneous and cost-free? While this sounds impossible, it is not.

The solution is “instant run-off voting.” (IRV) Instead of voting for one candidate, the voter ranks each candidate in order of preference. If one candidate emerges with so many first choices that she has a majority, that candidate wins the election. But if no candidate wins a majority, the candidate with the least amount of votes is eliminated. But what if you voted for that candidate that was eliminated? Your second-choice alternative candidate would be counted instead. For this reason, “instant run off voting” is also called “alternative voting” or “transferable voting.” If no candidate still had a majority, the process would be repeated again. A similar process can be used in at-large elections. IRV eliminate the need for primaries reducing election cost.


Suppose there was IRV in Florida in 2000. Since Nader came in last place, he is taken out of consideration and all second choices to Nader are counted. All the people that voted for Nader but had Gore as a second choice would be a “Gore” vote, and all the people that voted for Nader but had Bush as a second choice would be a “Bush” vote. In the end, there would be no spoiler, everyone could vote their heart, and the result would truly reflect the consensus of voters.

Primaries could be eliminated reducing cost. Think of past elections.

Steve Fillio runs for mayor of Pittsfield as the third mayoral candidate necessitating a primary. IRV eliminates the $17,000 cost of having that primary. Three candidates run for Register of Deeds and they are all Democrats. With IRV the cost of the primary is eliminated, the candidates run in November when everyone is paying attention, and Republicans can get an actual say in who will be the register. Both Ben Downing (32 percent) for state senate and Tricia Farley-Bouvier (38 percent) for state representative won with pluralities far less than a majority. Downing crushed the Republican, garnering 72 percent of the vote in what amounted to a no-contest.

Farley-Bouvier ran against Peter White and Ryan Scago and won with only 38 percent of the vote. She had no Republican opponent.

Tricia Farley-Bouvier and Ben Downing are excellent public servants. But they should have been elected in a way that would allow them to boast that they had gained a consensus of the majority — IRV provides the means.

If third parties want to be relevant, their first priority in Massachusetts should be to enact IRV through an initiative petition.

Rinaldo Del Gallo’s columns have been published in newspapers across the country.