The Unwasted Vote
Part 4 in a series on election reformDan Knight
November 30, 2000
The biggest obstacle to a meaningful multi-party system in the
United States is the concept of a wasted vote. Some claim any vote
not cast for a Democrat or a Republican is wasted.
The Wasted Vote
Using that logic, any vote not cast for the winner is a wasted
vote - a principle almost every voting American would deny. In
reality, there are only three kinds of wasted votes:
- Uncast votes. About half of all registered voters don't bother
to vote. That's a real waste, as is the number of citizens who are
not registered to vote.
- Spoiled ballots. We keep hearing about 19,000 spoiled ballots
in Palm Beach County (FL) due to two votes for President.
Voters need to be more careful. It's a shame some people make the
effort to vote, but then waster their vote by spoiling their
- Votes for a Democrat or Republican when you really support
someone else, whether Nader, Buchanan, Browne, Hagelin, or someone
If you vote for your candidate of choice, you have not wasted your
vote. You have spoken your mind, which is a core concept in the
American democratic experiment (see the Bill of Rights).
The Unwasted Vote
Still, a lot of Americans fear that voting for their candidate of
choice may lead to the election of the major party candidate they
least want in office. I believe that's why all third-party candidates
did so poorly this time around - because we perceived the Bush-Gore
race as so close, a lot of voters didn't dare cast a third-party
vote, selling their convictions for security.
What if it didn't have to be that way? What if you could vote
Browne or Buchanan, but have your vote go to Bush if your first
choice didn't win? What if you could vote for Nader, knowing your
vote would go to Gore if Nader didn't win? Wouldn't you be more
likely to follow alternative candidates and parties if you could be
assured your vote would be recycled, not wasted?
It can happen, although it wasn't a terribly easy thing to do
before computers. All you have to do is change the ballot from "vote
for one" to "rank these candidates." If your top choice is Hagelin,
he gets a 1. If your second choice is Bush, he gets a 2. You can stop
at any number you choose.
Better yet, with computerized voting, you could vote for your
first choice, confirm it, then go to a second screen that lists the
remaining choices. After that vote, you'd have a chance to cast your
third choice vote among the remaining candidates. The computer would
track your vote as a series of numbers.
At the end of the election, the system would tabulate and publish
the first choice results. If no candidate had a majority, all votes
for the candidate with the fewest first choice votes would be
distributed to the second choice of those voters. The process would
be repeated until one candidate has a majority.
Such systems have been effectively used in various parts of the
world - and also some places in the US. It not only gives you a
vote, but it takes your opinion about a second and third choice
seriously. It eliminates wasted votes.
Distributing the Vote
Under the current system, we could use this process to distribute
votes for the electoral college. In a state with 20 electors, votes
for the less popular candidates (below a certain threshold) might be
distributed to more popular ones, perhaps resulting in 9 electors for
one candidate, 8 for another, 3 for another, and 1 for a fourth.
Should we abolish the electoral college, the distribution would
take place on a national basis until one presidential candidate has a
majority - something neither Bush nor Gore achieved in the last
Such a system could also be used to select members of the House of
Representatives on a statewide basis, whether the state has a single
Representative or dozens. In larger states, instead of voting for
individual candidates, we could vote for political parties. If the
Democrats received 42% of the vote, 42% of that state's
Representatives would come from the Democrat's slate.
The End Result
If we establish national standards for voting and being listed on
the ballot, eliminate the Electoral College, distribute votes, and
allow for proportional representation in Congress, we can reduce vote
fraud, level the field for third-party candidates, assure those
elected of popular support, and increase the diversity of opinion at
all levels of government.
Parts of this may not be an easy sell to the American public,
which is entrenched in a two-party outlook. However, such a system
celebrates the diversity which makes up our nation and may result in
a system which leads to more consensus building and less
In light of the last election, there's no better time than the
present to discuss election reform and find ways to improve the
election reform on MacSlash>
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