On this election day, many New Jersey voters faced a common, unsatisfying, and ultimately unnecessary choice: vote for the best candidate, or vote for a candidate that the polls suggest could win?
Why unnecessary? In a reasonable electoral system, voting for the person you prefer would not increase the chances for someone you don't. But that's not how we do it.
A typical vote today awards the election to the candidate with the most votes--a plurality, not necessarily a majority. If a third candidate enters a two-person race, he or she is more likely to draw votes from the more similar candidate. The result is that an extra candidate with a particular viewpoint can reduce the chances of that viewpoint prevailing. This is the "spoiler effect."
The best known example is Ralph Nader's entry in the 2000 election in Florida. Although Nader got only a few percent of the votes, if everyone who voted for him had voted for Gore, Gore would have beaten Bush--in Florida, and in the country.
But there's nothing liberal or conservative about the problem. Any candidate can lose because of a strong third-party candidate with similar views.
This is just wrong.
It should be changed.
And there is a simple way to change it.
In instant runoff voting, voters rank all the candidates, rather than just voting for their first choice. Not too hard, right?
If no one gets a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest is eliminated. Those ballots are redistributed to the second choice on each ballot. No votes are "wasted," but voters get to express their true preference.
The results are exactly to what would happen in an ideal runoff election, except that there's no need for the expense and low turnout of a second election.
In 2000 Florida, for example, Nader would have been eliminated, and the ballots that listed him as first choice would have been allocated between Bush and Gore, depending on who people listed as their second choice. In 2009 New Jersey, independent Chris Daggett was expected to draw more votes from the Republican candidate, which could tip the balance to the Democrat.
Many individual cities, like Oakland and Memphis as well as some national elections use instant runoff voting now. There's nothing particularly difficult about it, except that the two dominant parties may see it as a threat to their exclusive right to power.
Instant runoff voting isn't perfect. Pretty much all voting systems have some quirks that sometimes give results that seem obviously wrong.
But it's not nearly as bad as what we have now.