Rethinking the Ways We Vote

The 2000 election sparked an interest in electoral reform. Paired with a rising tendency among voters toward self-declared independence from the two major parties and a new wave of reforms have started growing in popularity across the country. In statehouses and in voting booths, reforms are moving forward to give Americans more real options at the polls.

Instant Runoff Voting

In use in San Francisco; Burlington, VT; and Ferndale, MI, Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) is among the fastest-spreading voting reforms in the nation. The concept is simple. Rather than selecting a single candidate, voters rank their choices. When the ballots are tallied, election officials first count only the top choice of each voter. Candidates who received too few voters to be considered honest contenders get eliminated from the counting and the "runoff" begins.

Ballots whose top choice has been eliminated are now counted for voters' second choice. Candidates continue to be eliminated until a winner is elected. Under this system, voters are free to pick a third party candidate who most accurately fits their belief and also have a fallback major party candidate. Under this system, as proponents proudly point out, a winning candidate has to win a majority.

Instant Runoff got its name because it approximates two-round "runoff" elections experienced around the country, but it does it at a lower cost and with higher turnout by combining all of the elections into one.

Burlington only recently made the move to IRV, but already the locals are crowing about its success. And Vermont may take Instant Runoff statewide soon. Such a move would go a long ways in a state whose Congressional delegation has two Independents and whose state politics includes a strong third party -- the Progressives.

Proponents of IRV go so far as to claim that strong IRV elections make candidates more likely to be positive, as they'll want to be ranked high by their opponent's supporters. Opponents, though, like to argue that IRV only makes third parties into stronger voices for progressive ideas while still making it unlikely to elect third party leaders. Additionally, truly competitive three and four way elections can bring about strange impacts under the IRV system.

Fusion Voting

In use in New York for years, and with an historical presence in all fifty states across the country, fusion voting, also known as cross-endorsement, is making a comeback. Fusion allows candidates to seek the endorsement of multiple parties, allowing a single individual to run on the ballot with support from Democrats and Republicans and the Working Families Party and Progressives...or whatever support they can build into a coalition.

When voters choose a candidate, they also have the freedom to choose a party. So, for example, in New York, voters often have the chance to pick a winning candidate while supporting the Working Families Party, a strong third party that operates exclusively through fusion. In many cases, support on the Working Families Party line is significant enough to make the difference between victory and defeat, giving candidates good reason to reach out to the Working Families Party and address their agenda. Their hard work has led Republicans to lead the fight on issues like fair share health care.

Fusion Voting is headed for the ballot this fall in Massachusetts and organizers in Oregon are giving it a shot at both the legislature and on the ballot. Fusion voting is already legal in seven states: Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Mississippi, New York, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, and Vermont. Only New York and Connecticut actively use the process.

Proponents of fusion voting point to it as the greatest success story of any third party in America. Critics say that it prevents third parties from growing and leaves them dependent on the two larger parties.

Adjusting Voters to Reform

One of the biggest concerns when states consider moves to new options like fusion voting or instant runoff is confusion among voters. Especially with changes in voting technology, ensuring that voters understand new voting methods can be a challenge. At least one state considering fusion voting is unlikely to run into much confusion. Recently, we highlighted Oregon's universal vote-by-mail system. Oregon consistently has high voter participation, even on ballot issues that have a tendency to clog the ballot, with 30 issues or more in any given election. Vote-by-mail gives voters a chance to deal with ballot changes on their own time, outside the pressure of the voting booth. As such, it might be a good first step for states pondering reforms to open up the democratic process.

More Resources