Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Third Parties and IRV

A couple of weeks ago Deborah decried the absence of viable third parties in the U.S.:

I think this country desperately needs more than two parties. I don't know how we'll ever get there, but I think it's needed.
I don't see any particular value to third parties, but I do know how to get there:
In Australia’s November 24th general election, which I wrote about in this week’s Comment, the Green Party did rather well. It got 7.7 per cent of the vote. By comparison, the Presidential candidate of America’s Green Party in 2000, Ralph Nader, got about 2.7 per cent.

For the past seven years, Americans (and the world) have been suffering from the head-pounding hangover of that 2.7 per cent: President George W. Bush. Even though a clear majority of us—51 per cent—wanted a left-of-center government, we got, with the help of a little nudge from the Supreme Court, a very, very right-of-center one.

In Australia, the consequence was precisely the opposite. The Labor Party, Australia’s equivalent of the Democrats,was the first choice of about 43 per cent of voters. But because Australia has preference voting—what we call instant runoff voting—the Green Party’s voters helped float Labor over the top rather than torpedoing it to the bottom. Once the second and third choices of the Greens and other minor-party voters were counted, Labor ended up with about 54 per cent—43 per cent enthusiastic supporters, 11 per cent grudging ones.
Under the current system, third parties simply have no constructive role to play in national elections. At best, they have no impact; at worst, the impact is precisely the opposite of what their supporters would want. Under IRV, those people could express their disgruntlement with one alternative while embracing the reality that the other is far worse.

Third parties who run presidential candidates have it precisely backwards; they're trying to have an impact without having done the work to make it possible to have a positive impact. If third parties actually want to have some influence, they need to stop squandering resources on trying to torpedo people who are less ideologically pure than themselves, and devote those resources to getting instant runoff voting passed by the states.

(I think the Democratic party would also do well to push IRV, but it's a less compelling need for them; there are reasons for the party to exist with or without IRV, which isn't true of third parties.)

Until and unless the Greens (for example) make that switch, I'm afraid I can't take anything they have to say at all seriously.