05/30/2010 10:20 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Preferential Voting: Another Democracy Lesson from Australia

Democracies benefit from people expressing themselves freely and openly. I mentioned previously that a successful democracy is one where people vote and their vote has meaning. The fact that Americans don't vote is symptom number 1 that American democracy is struggling.

Symptom number 2 is that often American votes don't seem to be relevant. Whether it is gerrymandering, living in a red/blue state, the Electoral College or living in Washington D.C. (where they have no voting representation in Congress) there are plenty of reasons to feel that your vote doesn't count in America.

Dissatisfaction with the mainstream elements of the two major parties has routinely generated an attempted third party or powerful side voice within one of the major parties. Ross Perot's Reform Party garnered nearly 19% of the popular vote in 1992 but no electoral votes. In the 2000 presidential elections, lost amid the illegal Florida voter roll cleaning and chad-studying theater was the fact that Ralph Nader had received almost 3% of the popular vote, including a significant percent in some state close elections. Voters who supported Perot in 1992 and Nader in 2000 were aware that their candidate had little chance of winning yet they cast their vote to a third party.

If voters could vote for third party candidates and be assured that their votes were not immediately rendered meaningless, would that make for a better democracy? Australians have addressed this idea through preferential voting where voters rank the candidates. All the first place votes are counted. If no candidate wins an absolute majority of first place votes, then the candidate with the least number of votes is dropped and the ballots of this eliminated candidate are re-allocated according to its second place votes. This process continues until a candidate has an absolute majority.

In 1992, Bill Clinton received 43% of the popular vote but won the Electoral College in a landslide. Had the Perot votes been reallocated using a preferential system, Clinton would still likely have won handily, but we'll never know for certain. Academicians and political analysts can debate endlessly about the impact that Nadar had in the 2000 election, but we'll never know for certain. With preferential voting, the voices of those Nadar and Perot supporters would have been heard more clearly.

Australia's been using this system of preferential voting for almost 100 years - perhaps its time for the United States to consider the advantages and disadvantages rather than quash votes that don't belong to the two main political parties.