What Howard Dean Could Tell Bill Clinton and Kendrick Meek: Change the Voting System

Former president Bill Clinton has been campaigning feverishly in his bid to help Democrats hold onto Congress and win state races across the country. But it wasn't fatigue or the heat that led him to campaign for Kendrick Meek, the Democrats' U.S. Senate nominee in Florida, and then urge him to drop out of the race. It was a dysfunctional electoral system that some American states and cities are starting to change.

Here's the backstory. As reported in a front-page story in The New York Times, Bill Clinton campaigned for Congressman Meek, but then almost succeeded in persuading him to drop out of the race to help boost independent Charlie Crist over Republican nominee Marco Rubio. The reason is simple: with Meek in the race, Crist will probably lose. With him out of the race, Crist would have a real shot at winning, with polls showing that Meek backers support Crist over Rubio by a 10-to-one margin, and Crist has indicated he would caucus with the Democrats in the U.S. Senate. [Note, added October 31: Clinton says he did not ask Meek to drop out, contradicting his spokesman.]

On the one hand, Clinton is right: Meek is now as much of a "spoiler" as Ralph Nader was in the 2000 presidential election in Florida. In a plurality voting system, everyone has one vote, and the candidate in first wins no matter how low their percentage of the vote. In some elections, it's crystal clear how most backers of the candidate in third would vote if choosing between the top two. A Suffolk University poll showed that Meek backers supported Crist as a second choice by more than ten to one.

But on the other hand, Clinton's outreach to Meek is an insight into the appalling, anti-participatory, undemocratic nature of the plurality voting system that we too often take for granted in the United States. Meek seeks to make history with his campaign, not be a "spoiler." He is running to be Florida's first-ever African American Senator - and indeed, if elected, would be the only African American member of the U.S. Senate next year. He's a major party nominee, a Member of Congress and the winner of a hotly contested primary over a self-financed zillionaire. His party's nominee for governor, Alex Sink, is fighting for every vote she can win in a toss-up race for governor -- a race with potentially huge implications for congressional redistricting in 2011 and the presidential election in 2012.

Even as the Meek-Clinton story was breaking, Dr. Howard Dean was proposing a sensible cure for the plurality voting "spoiler" disease: the instant runoff voting form of Ranked Choice Voting. Dean knows politics well -- he was several gubernatorial elections in Vermont, was a frontrunner in the race for Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 and was chair of the Democratic National Committee from 2004 to 2008. In his commentary for the McClatchy-Tribune News Service, he wrote:

Ranked choice voting handles voter choice with a sensible change. After indicating your first choice, you have the option to rank alternate choices. If no candidate wins a 50 percent plus one majority, then those rankings are used to simulate an instant runoff: the weak candidates are eliminated, and their backers' votes are added to the totals of the frontrunners. The candidate who wins a majority in the final instant runoff is the winner....

Having more competition forces candidates to clean up negative campaigning and stick to the issues. Knowing they may need support from supporters of other candidates to win, candidates have to tone down personal attacks. Reaching out to more voters also helps them govern better when they win.

The fundamental issue is majority rule. Without a majority standard, you can't hold power accountable. It's a blight on democracy when an incumbent can be returned to office even though 60 percent of voters reject that candidate as their last choice....With ranked choice voting, we can uphold majority rule, make campaigns less negative and foster less partisan elections. Let's make democracy work for all of us.

Gov. Dean is right, of course. We in fact should fight for any majority system over plurality voting. Brazil is in the midst of a presidential runoff election because in the first round the leader won "only" 47% -- that's a higher percentage of the vote than likely to be earned by winners of some ten races for U.S. Senate and governor next week, but it's not a majority. Candidates still could have been "spoilers." So Brazil requires the top two to face off and uphold majority rule.

Ranked choice voting is called instant runoff voting because it accomplishes this goal in one efficient round of voting by allowing voter to rank indicate alternative "runoff" choices by ranking candidates first, second and third and then using those rankings to simulate a runoff. Traditional runoff elections are better than plurality voting, but they come with a price-tag: literally, as big cities and states with runoffs spend millions to administer them. In this era of grotesque big money politics, they also give a boost to money in the second election, especially in the zero-sum world of "if you lose, I win" negative attack ads. Turnout often plunges, especially when the runoff is for an office other than governor or mayor.

Ranked choice voting has been used in Australia for more than a century. It was used this month to elect the mayor of New Zealand's capital Wellington and in 1990 was key to Mary Robinson becoming Ireland's first woman president, vaulting her from second place. It's getting some fascinating use this November -- a first-ever general statewide election in North Carolina. Oakland is using ranked choice voting for the first time in an open seat race for mayor, as our other Bay Area cities like San Francisco, Berkeley and San Leandro. In fact, every November since 2004, it's been passed by the voters in at least one American city -- cities like Ferndale (MI) in 2004, Takoma Park (MD) in 2005, Minneapolis (MN) and Oakland (CA) in 2006, Sarasota (FL) in 2007, Memphis (TN) in 2008 and St. Paul (MN) in 2009. Portland (ME) has it on the ballot next week.

Gov. Dean is not only in backing ranked choice voting. In 2002, a young state senator in Illinois introduced legislation to use RCV for primary elections: Barack Obama. That same year, Sen. John McCain taped a phone message for Alaska reformers seeking to win RCV for statewide elections. This year, Minnesota is seeing a slew of calls for ranked choice voting from several of that state's most respected leaders from across the spectrum.

I'll end by pasting in a fascinating set of poll numbers from my colleague Chris Marchsteiner's non-majority rule blog that help show how RCV works. In Colorado, Republican Dan Maes has seen is gubernatorial campaign implode. As his numbers have fallen, this fellow conservative Tom Tancredo of the Constitution Party has seen his numbers rise to the point that Democrat John Hickenlooper now is in a real contest- -- most Maes' backers supported Tancredo as a second choice, just as most Meek supporters back Crist as a second choice.

We can never make a perfect electoral system. No system is entirely "spoiler-free" or sure of electing a majority candidate. But never was the case for ranked choice voting clearer than in the last 24 hours in Florida.