“A well-funded group called Americans Elect is planning to hold a national primary election on the Internet with the aim of nominating a centrist third-party candidate for president in 2012.” According to the Los Angeles Times, they are considering New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, former Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, or even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Assuming this gets off the ground – Bloomberg and Clinton are on the record as not wanting the job – the way the US elections are stacked, they could not win. Theoretically, though, a third party could play a role as a spoiler. George Wallace in 1968, John B. Anderson in 1980, H. Ross Perot in 1992, and Ralph Nader in 2000 may have made a difference in their respective races.
The voting system used by the US, called “plurality voting”, is notoriously flawed. Voters who favor a third-party candidate are forced into a dilemma: they can either vote sincerely and “waste” their vote on a third party, or vote defensively and pick the lesser of two evils.
Plurality voting suppresses new ideas and encourages campaigns built around negative attacks. The effect of this system is to virtually exclude all but two political parties (The last third-party president was elected in the 1850s).
The solution is well known and deceptively simple: rewrite our ballots to use a fair system such as “instant runoff voting”. This voting system is used in several US cities and worldwide with great success [see, for example, fairvote.org/what-is-irv].
There can never be a sustainable third-party movement in the United States as long as there is plurality voting. I support instant runoff voting as a viable option to the status quo. It can’t be implemented nationally in time for 2012, although it is already used in several locales in the United States and around the world.