Op-Ed: Howard Dean: How to Move Beyond the Two-Party System

The New York Times

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I stand with Hillary Clinton in the presidential race. Others will back Donald J. Trump. But polls suggest that almost one in 10 voters are making a different choice by supporting the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, or another candidate.

And so once again major party backers warn against wasting votes on “spoilers” and criticize minor party candidates for even running. Defenders of third parties assert that there is no difference between the major parties and blame mainstream politicians for keeping them out of debates.

We keep repeating this cycle. That’s why it is so important that Maine next month can lead the nation in turning our lose-lose electoral rules into a win-win for everyone — one where minor parties can compete on a more level playing field, yet major parties don’t have to fear being “spoiled.”

Question Five on the Maine ballot would establish ranked-choice voting in the 2018 primary and general elections for governor, Congress and State Legislature. While presidential and city elections aren’t included, Maine’s largest city, Portland, already uses ranked-choice voting to elect its mayor.

It is fitting that Maine’s motto is “the way life should be.” I believe ranked-choice voting represents what democracy will be. It’s a solution to the problem of how to uphold majority rule and give more voice to voters by presenting them with more than two options.

Ranked-choice voting is already used by tens of millions of voters, including in Australia and Ireland’s national elections, London, Minnesota’s twin cities and eight other American cities when electing mayors. It is also used in picking the Oscar nominees for best picture, and in electing student leaders at more than 50 American colleges.

It’s as easy as 1-2-3. Voters have the option to rank the candidates from first to last, and any candidate with a majority of first choices wins, just as in any other election. But if no candidate has a majority, you hold an “instant runoff” tally in order to compare the top two candidates head to head. Candidates in last place are eliminated, and their backers’ votes are counted for their next choice. When it’s down to two, the winner earns a majority of the vote.

I learned to appreciate ranked-choice voting in 2000, when seeking re-election as governor of Vermont. I faced strong challenges from the Republican and Progressive Parties. With votes split three ways, I barely won a majority. In Vermont, the Legislature elects the governor if no one achieves a majority. I think the voters should do that. Major parties can take two approaches after such an election: fight the very existence of minor parties, or change laws to handle increased voter choice.

Ranked-choice voting represents the latter — and better — approach. Voters can support their favorites while still voting effectively against their least favorite. Having more competition encourages better dialogue on issues. Civility is substantially improved. Needing to reach out to more voters leads candidates to reduce personal attacks and govern more inclusively.

Some critics suggest it’s a crutch for independents and minor parties because they can compete without being spoilers and may earn invitations to more debates. Others suggest it’s a trick to make it harder for third parties to win. But the reality is that everyone would need to accept the challenge of being responsive to more voters. That’s a challenge that many major party backers like me are eager to embrace.

The fundamental issue is majority rule. Without a majority standard, you can’t hold the powerful accountable.

The case for ranked-choice voting is nonpartisan. Senator John McCain, a Republican, and Senator Barack Obama, a Democrat, opposed each other in the 2008 campaign, yet both back ranked-choice voting. My fellow Vermonter, Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent, backs ranked-choice voting and testified in support of legislation to use it for Vermont’s congressional elections.

The legislation backed by Mr. Sanders underscores that ranked-choice voting is about fair outcomes, not partisan calculation. Many Vermont Republicans thought it might hurt their chances to win, and Gov. Jim Douglas vetoed a bill in 2008. But just six years later, Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, won the governor’s race by only 2,434 votes, which was far fewer than the 8,428 votes cast for a Libertarian more aligned with Republicans.

The same logic applies to presidential races. With ranked-choice voting, Al Gore might have won the presidency in 2000. This year Mr. Trump might have won fewer Republican primaries.

But such history says nothing about the future. What’s important is making democracy stronger for our kids and our grandchildren.

Put on the ballot by signatures collected overwhelmingly by volunteers, Question Five has impressive support from across the political spectrum and is doing well in polls. A victory would make campaigns less negative, give voters more voice and show the rest of the country how best to uphold majority rule.

While Congress could establish ranked-choice voting for Senate and House elections, we don’t need to wait. States can start now to upgrade their elections, from how they choose legislators to the president in 2020. The stakes are too high to diminish our voices.

Howard Dean is a former governor of Vermont and a Democratic presidential candidate.

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