IRV lets voters rank candidates
Published February 5th 2007 in Trenton Times
Ralph Nader is back in the spotlight again.

He's the subject of a new documentary film, "An Unreasonable Man." And he's making the rounds of the talk shows, promoting his latest book -- and continuing to insist that he didn't cost Al Gore the 2000 election. In fact, he claims, Gore would have received fewer votes than he did if Nader hadn't been on the ticket as the Green Party candidate, pushing him to the left.

If this kind of rationalization gives Nader comfort as he contemplates the ruinous handiwork of the Bush administration, he's welcome to it.

The fact is, however, that Nader had every right as a citizen to run for president. The 2.8 million people who voted for him had every right to do so, including the 97,000 in Florida, where George W. Bush's lead of 500-some votes when the recounting stopped handed him that state's crucial 25 electoral ballots.

The real culprit in 2000 -- and the reason that a third-party or independent candidate anywhere can change the outcome of an election while running far behind the two leaders -- is the illogical way we count the ballots in most of the country, including New Jersey.

We use a straight plurality system, in which the candidate with the most votes wins.

When there are more than two candidates in a race, however, there's a chance the winner will receive fewer than a majority of the votes cast.

It happened in 1992, too, when Bill Clinton won with 43 percent of the popular vote, thanks to H. Ross Perot's third-party campaign. It happens all the time in state and local primaries and general elections that involve multiple candidates.

Nader has been denounced as a "spoiler," a candidate with no chance to win who caused the election of a man the majority of Americans didn't want.

But candidates ought to be able to run without suffering that kind of stigma.

It can be done with a system called instant runoff voting (IRV). With IRV, third-party candidates can campaign -- and their supporters can vote for them -- in good conscience, knowing that by exercising their free choice, they won't help bring about the election of the candidate they least admire.

Equally important are IRV's other advantages. The system is clean, quick, cost-effective and democratic. It's superior in every way to holding a conventional runoff-type election between the top two candidates, which some places, including the city of Trenton, use when no candidate ends up with a majority.

An actual runoff does end up with a majority rather than a plurality victor. But it requires the two finalists to resume the stress of campaigning and fundraising for an additional few weeks. And it hits the taxpayer with a large additional expense in return for a diminished result; voter turnout is almost always smaller the second time.

In an IRV election, the runoff is part of the counting of the ballots.

Voters are given the option of ranking the candidates in order of choice: 1, 2, 3.

If one candidate receives a majority of first choices, that person is elected. However, if no one is the first choice of at least half the voters plus one, the re-tabulation begins.

The candidate with the fewest first preferences is eliminated, and the second choices on his or her ballots are redistributed to the remaining candidates.

This process of eliminating candidates and re-tabulating the votes continues until two finalists remain. Whichever one has the most votes is the winner.

Still another advantage of IRV is that it tends to discourage negative campaigning. Candidates are less likely to sling mud because such tactics would risk offending the voters who support the candidate under attack.

IRV is used abroad to elect the mayor of London, the president of Ireland, members of the Australian parliament and other officials.

Last year, Burlington, Vt., became the first U.S. city to elect a mayor in this manner. San Francisco uses IRV to choose members of its board of supervisors. Last fall, voters in Minneapolis, Oakland, Davis (California) and Pierce County (Washington) approved IRV for local elections.

In New Jersey, however, only a few political scientists and policy wonks even know about IRV.

One of its fervent advocates in Assemblyman Bill Baroni, R-Hamilton, sponsor of a bill to create a 10-member study commission to examine the system and make recommendations. The bill remains buried in committee.

Another fan is Ingrid Reed of the Eagleton Institute of Politics, an expert on all aspects of voting. Reed thinks IRV could be sold on the basis of its cost-efficiency alone.

"Why are we willing to have two elections in Trenton in May and then again in June with so little participation? We would be really incensed at any other waste of money such as that," she said.

Right now, Reed pointed out, the Attorney General's Office, which supervises elections in the state, is working to develop specifications for electronic voting machines that would provide the "voter-verifiable paper audit trail" that New Jersey has mandated.

"States should be quite assertive in making their case for what they want in voting machines, because it's now a buyer's market, not a seller's market," Reed said. "The vendors are looking very carefully at what states want and are competing with each other to provide it.

"This is a good time to add the capacity for accommodating instant runoff voting to our machine specifications," she said.