'Instant runoff' idea proposed again

By John Dewesse
Published February 25th 2003 in Tacoma News Tribune

For years, politicians have bickered over whether to shift Washington's primary election from September to August or June.

Two state lawmakers are pushing a more radical idea: Get rid of it.

Rep. Toby Nixon and Sen. Bill Finkbeiner are sponsoring bills aimed at creating a so-called "instant runoff" system in Washington. The Kirkland Republicans say it's a more progressive elections system - a way that gives smaller political parties a bigger voice.

House Bill 1925 and Senate Bill 5444 would introduce the same system used nationally in Australia and Ireland and for city elections in Cambridge, Mass., and San Francisco. Similar proposals failed in the 2001 and 2002 legislative sessions in Olympia.

The legislation would affect the governor and all state elected officials, legislators and judges. Local governments could choose to use either the traditional or runoff voting system.

In an instant runoff election, each voter ranks the top five candidates.

If one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the election ends. Otherwise, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Ballots listing the losing candidate are recounted, with the second choice counted as the voter's first pick. This process of eliminating the last-place candidate and recounting ballots continues until one candidate gets more than 50 percent.

The system could boost interest in such smaller parties as the Libertarians or Greens because voters could choose an underdog but also have a backup choice, said Nixon, a former Libertarian.

"You don't have the feeling of throwing away votes to someone who has no realistic choice of winning," he said.

Recounted votes also would be fair to the major parties by eliminating "spoiler" elections, such as the 2000 Senate race when Democrat Maria Cantwell beat incumbent Republican Sen. Slade Gorton by 2,229 votes out of 2.46 million. Nixon credits Cantwell's victory to Jeff Jared, a Libertarian who got 63,000 votes. In a runoff election, Nixon predicted, many of Jared's conservative votes would have gone to Gorton.

The cost of new ballot-counting equipment would be offset by eliminating primary elections, Finkbeiner said, since one winner could be chosen from a large group of candidates.

Washington's blanket primary system has come under fire by major parties because it allows voters to crisscross the ballot, choosing candidates from any party for all races. The state's Democratic, Republican and Libertarian parties have been fighting to limit voting in primaries to party members.

Another complaint is Washington holds one of the country's latest primaries.

The state's top elections official, Secretary of State Sam Reed, wants to move the primary from September to the second week of June. Reed worries that changing the traditional system to an instant runoff system could frustrate voters used to picking just one candidate.

"We already have a problem that some voters feel they aren't well enough prepared," he said. "We would now call on them not just to make one but two or three choices. It could have a chilling effect on voter participation."

Then there's the question of how poll workers would be able to count multiple-choice votes. Cambridge has successfully used hand counting in runoff elections with less than 17,000 ballots, but Reed said he will be watching San Francisco to see how well the system does in a major American election.

San Francisco voters passed an initiative last year creating a runoff system, but the city's election department announced last week that the software isn't ready.

Similar proposals have failed in the Washington Legislature in the past two years. Prospects this year don't look so good, either.

"They're a little ahead of their time," said House State Government Committee Chairwoman Kathy Haigh (D-Shelton).

Instant runoff voting should be tried at the local level before attempting to change the statewide system, said Janet Anderson of the League of Women Voters of Washington.

Vancouver, Wash., changed its charter in 1999 to allow runoff voting.

But state law requires that the city hold a primary election, said Rep. Jim Moeller. The Vancouver Democrat is sponsoring a bill to give voters in charter cities a choice between runoff and traditional elections.