Support grows for switch to run-off voting

By Tom Bell
Published February 19th 2003 in Portland Press Herald

AUGUSTA — Election reform advocates are rallying behind legislation that would establish the instant run-off voting method for national and state elections. Supporters of the method - used in Australia and Ireland and some U.S. and British cities - say it minimizes the "spoiler effect" that
occurs when an independent or third-party candidate prevents any candidate from winning a majority of votes.  Under the current system, they say, a candidate can win an election even when a significant majority of voters vote for other candidates. They point to elections such as the 1998 election in Minnesota that elected Jesse Ventura governor with just 37 percent of the vote.

The issue has particular resonance in Maine, where each of last five governors - John Baldacci, Angus King, John McKernan, Joseph Brennan and James Longley - has won at least one election by less than a majority vote. King won with 36 percent of the vote in 1994 in a four-way race.

Baldacci last November failed to win a majority vote in a three-way race with Republican Peter Cianchette and Green Party candidate Jonathan Carter.

Instant runoff voting would create election results that "truly reflect the will of the people," said Thomas Bull, D-Freeport, the bill's sponsor.  The bill's supporters, who failed to win legislative support two years ago, are better-organized this year, and their list of co-sponsors include House Majority leader John Richardson, D-Brunswick, and Senate President Beverly Daggett, D-Augusta. Three other legislators submitted similar bills.

The opposition includes Maine Municipal Association and the Maine Town and City Clerks Association. Both groups believe the proposal would confuse voters, cause municipalities to spend money to reprogram their ballot-counting machines, and make the job of hand-counting ballots even more daunting.

"The process being presented to you is easier said than done," said MMA lobbyist Kate Defour at a public hearing Tuesday before the Committee on Legal and Veterans Affairs.

The instant runoff method works by simulating the ballot counts that would occur if all voters participated in a series of run-off elections. Voters are allowed to rank candidates according to their preference. If a candidate gets more than 50 percent of the votes, he or she is declared the winner. But if nobody gets a majority, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated and the second-choice votes designated by that candidate's supporters are distributed accordingly to the remaining candidates.

The process continues until one candidate receives a clear majority.

The Vermont Legislature, which has been studying the issue for several years, is poised to enact the method this year. Vermont Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz, an advocate for the new system, believes it will reduce negative campaigning because candidates will reach out to supporters of other candidates in search of second preferences.

Arn Pearson, executive director of the Maine Citizen Leadership Fund, agrees. "It takes away the whole incentive to tear the other guy down," he said.

From an academic position, the method is winning converts. The American Political Science Association concluded that instant runoff is the most efficient and democratic election system and adopted it to elect the group's own leaders.

Cambridge, Mass. and San Francisco have adopted instant runoff voting, but no state or county has used the method to elect state or federal candidates. Julie Flynn, the Maine Secretary of State's deputy director, told the legislative committee that the method does not have a proven history of working in a complicated place like Maine, which has 647 precincts and 328 official ballot styles. She said 79 percent of the state's municipalities hand count ballots.

Establishing such a system in Maine, she said, would require extensive study.