For several years now (before the 2000 Presidential election, but even more strongly after that), I’ve been of the opinion that allowing people to mark a 1st, 2nd and 3rd choice on each ballot would effectively resolve the “lesser of two evils” problem that limits us to the Republicans and Democrats as the only viable political parties.
(For the record, since I was first eligible to vote, I’ve registered with a “decline to state” affiliation because I prefer to be associated with neither right-wing wackos nor left-wing wackos. I usually consider myself a moderate, but in today’s political climate what I consider moderate looks extremely liberal by comparison.)
The last two big elections, Bush vs. Gore for President and Davis vs. Simon for California governor, were both cases where I didn’t particularly like one candidate but really disliked the other. I voted for Davis not because I wanted him to stay in office, but because I wanted to keep Simon out of office. Similarly, I really didn’t want Bush in the White House despite the fact that I wasn’t terribly excited about Gore. (Actually, I might have voted for McCain if he’d been running. He’s voted for some things I disagree with, but even back then he struck me as a much more sensible person than our current President, and much closer to my own political leanings.)
Anyway, suppose one of these elections had featured a viable third-party candidate, someone with as much visibility as Perot had in 1992. Now suppose that this candidate was more in line with my political opinions than either “mainstream” candidate. Under the current system, depending on how close the election looked, I would probably still end up voting for Davis or Gore, despite the fact that I’d rather have the hypothetical third candidate win.
Now suppose I could list my first, second and third choice: In the gubernatorial race, I could have voted for Mr. Hypothetical first, Davis second, and cast no vote for Simon (or put him last on the list). If enough people thought as I did, preferring the third-party candidate overall, then voting their second choice as the lesser of the remaining two evils, that candidate might actually have a chance to win.
Strangely, while following a link from a software mailing list, I noticed some commentary on this same subject, and a description of the Condorcet voting system—very similar to what I had considered, but much more thoroughly developed. [Edit: That link originally pointed to electionmethods.org, but the two people running the site had a falling out over politics. One of them put up a ridiculously condescending shutdown notice in October 2005.]
Of course since the guy who developed it was French, chances are no one today will admit to looking at it.