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Synthesis/Regeneration 25   (Summer 2001)

Electoral Alternatives

The Case for a National IRV Strategy

by James J. Nicita, Green Party of Michigan

Are the Green Party and the Nader 2000 organization squandering an exceptional opportunity to secure widespread implementation of instant runoff voting (IRV)? I will confess to 20/20 hindsight here, but I fear the answer may be "yes."

It is axiomatic that Green Party candidacies, beyond solely promoting the distinct Green Party platform, use the "spoiler" threat to inspire legislative or popular attempts to enact IRV laws. These efforts are most likely to succeed if Greens put as much thought into a linked post-election IRV lobbying/organizing strategy as we put into a particular candidacy itself. The New Mexico Green Party has demonstrated such success over the years, most recently in getting an IRV bill through the state senate and missing by only one vote getting the bill out of a committee in the state house of representatives.

But where the New Mexico Green Party typically has carefully planned in advance its post-election IRV lobbying efforts, to the point of knowing precisely which state legislator to target as the one to introduce an IRV bill (in the recent case, the very state senator it spoiled in a federal congressional race), neither the Green Party nationally nor the Nader 2000 campaign prior to the election had formulated a post-November 7 IRV lobbying strategy.

Further, even in these post-election months, no discussion appears to be taking place regarding a coordinated strategy. A few weeks after the election, the Steering Committee and some committee chairs of the Association of State Green Parties met privately with Ralph Nader in Washington, DC for a post-election debriefing, but they did not discuss an IRV strategy. Similarly, no strategy was planned at the December meeting of the Coordinating Committee of the ASGP in Georgia. For its part, the Nader 2000 organization now retains only a skeletal staff in Washington, DC; it retained its state coordinators only through the end of November.

It is not too late for Nader 2000 to…change its focus from a Presidential campaign to a national campaign to enact IRV laws.

Let us not allow the momentum of the 2000 Presidential campaign to dissipate irretrievably. As the standard bearer of this campaign, Ralph Nader could have a singular leadership role to play in a national campaign for IRV. It is not too late for Nader 2000 to take advantage of its vast donor list to fund the rebuilding of its organizational capacity—including hiring state coordinators—and merely change its focus from a Presidential campaign to a national campaign to enact IRV laws. The experience would be a familiar one for the Nader campaign, which charted each state and its ballot access requirements, then put forth a plan for meeting these requirements. Charting each state for requirements for an IRV initiative and developing appropriate implementation strategies would not be a great conceptual leap for the Nader 2000 folks.

Why advocate a nationally coordinated Nader/Green Party campaign for IRV? Since one of the 10 Key Values is Decentralization, and since the conduct of elections remains in the realm of state statutory law, why not just leave this type of organizing to individual state Green parties?

The answer, simply put, is the difference between enacting 1 or 2 IRV laws by the 2004 Presidential election and enacting 10 to 15. The Green Party should certainly have learned this lesson from its experience with ballot access. Prior to the 2000 Presidential election, just over 10 state Green Parties had attained ballot status over a period of a decade. With the coordinated leadership, strategy, and resources it provided, the Nader 2000 campaign attained a spot on the ballot either for Ralph Nader himself or for the Green Party in about 30 more states.

My own state of Michigan serves as a case in point. The Green Party of Michigan failed three times prior to 2000 to attain statewide ballot status, in part because Michigan stands in the upper rank of states with restrictive ballot access laws. The GPMI has Ralph Nader to credit directly for our ballot line: he hired a capable national field coordinator in Todd Main and state coordinator in Juscha Vannier, and Nader's high-profile, credible progressive campaign attracted countless new people into the party. Even so, we always felt we were "running scared" during the petition drive, and as a cushion against challenges we resorted to a loan (which we still have not completely paid off) from one of our members to pay petitioners.

If the UAW, along with other unions, joined an IRV coalition in Michigan, this would…vastly increase the prospects of actual passage.

Now, as difficult as it was for the GPMI to collect and submit the required 32,000 signatures for ballot status, it would be impossible for us on our own to collect the over 242,000 signatures that would be required to place an IRV initiative question on the ballot in Michigan. Many states that allow the initiative process present a similar story: a signature requirement for initiative 5 to 10 times that for political party ballot access. (A complete list of states that allow initiative, including their signature and other requirements, can be found at the website of the Initiative and Referendum Institute: www.iandrinstitute.com). These types of numbers can only be secured through broad coalitions.

A reconstituted—and perhaps renamed—Nader 2000 organization, again working with the Green Party, could use the experience and momentum of the 2000 presidential campaign to build such a national coalition. To demonstrate how, I can again draw on the experience in my home state.

Absent a national strategy, the prospects for enacting IRV will likely be spotty at best.

A key dynamic of the 2000 presidential campaign was a variant on the process of inspiring in legislators and citizens a desire to enact IRV laws through spoiling a race. In the presidential race, instead, the inspiration to enact IRV laws comes through the frustration people experienced in having been afraid to support the right candidate in the first place out of concern that he would have been a spoiler. In Michigan, there was no better symbol of this fear and frustration than the sentiments of Steve Yokich, the president of the United Auto Workers' Union (UAW). Yokich knew full well that Nader was the best candidate for the American Worker, given Nader's supportive stance on issues like the Living Wage, WTO, NAFTA, Taft-Hartley repeal, etc. Just after the Congress, with Gore's support, approved permanent PNTR status for China, a fuming Yokich issued a statement in which he hinted that the UAW might support Nader. But, out of the fear that support for Nader might lead to the election of the greater of two evils, Bush, the UAW fell into line and supported the lesser of two evils, Gore.

Surely this experience has made Yokich receptive to the need to replace the winner-take-all electoral system. If the UAW, along with other unions, joined an IRV coalition in Michigan, this would certainly cinch such a coalition's ability to get an IRV initiative proposal on the state ballot, and would vastly increase the prospects of actual passage. Certainly the GPMI could approach the UAW about organizing such a coalition in Michigan, but it was Nader who, through his stature, actually achieved a one-on-one meeting with Yokich last May. And further, why limit such organizing to one state, when the UAW has a significant presence in other industrial states with initiative, such as California, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Ohio? Countless other likely candidates for membership in a broad IRV coalition also are national in scale. Some of them, such as the Sierra Club and the PIRGs, have already made public statements in support of IRV since November 7. Nader could also attempt to recruit into an IRV coalition the many issue-oriented national groups he has founded in the past, such as Common Cause and Public Citizen, as well as the organizations that endorsed his presidential campaign. Finally, if the other "minor" political parties came on board as well, none of the issue groups would have to be concerned about the appearance of partisan alignment with the Green Party.

Absent a national strategy, the prospects for enacting IRV will likely be spotty at best. The citizens of Alaska have succeeded in getting an initiative question on the ballot. States with strong Green Parties and traditions of using statewide initiatives, such as Oregon and California, could also succeed with IRV campaigns. Where initiative is not available, as in New Mexico, the NMGP will surely persist in its patient effort to get the legislature to act. The Vermont legislature has also had IRV under consideration. Finally, in rare cases where local municipal elections are partisan and home rule traditions are strong enough, Greens might lobby for municipal elections through IRV: the Huron Valley Greens in Michigan have discussed the possibility of working to re-establish the IRV ordinance that the City of Ann Arbor used in the 1975 municipal elections.

However, if Greens and others want to see IRV implemented in the near future, and on a scale that makes a significant difference in American politics and society, then a national, coordinated IRV campaign will be essential.

James J. Nicita was the Green Party of Michigan's candidate for Wayne State University Board of Governors in the November 7, 2000 election.

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