House approves bill allowing instant runoffs in limited use

By Don Jenkins
Published March 14th 2003 in Vancouver Columbian
The House on Thursday approved a bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Moeller that would let Vancouver resume flirting with a new way of  electing city council members.
Used sparingly in the United States and not authorized now by Washington law, instant runoff voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference.
The method eliminates costly primaries, makes every vote count and encourages cleaner campaigns, advocates say.
It also takes some explaining.
"I was pretty pessimistic it would get out of committee. Every time I talked to somebody, it was an educational process," said Moeller, a Vancouver Democrat.
House Bill 1390, passed by a 64-30 vote, opens the door to instant runoff voting only a crack.
Under the measure, which now goes to the Senate, the state's 10 cities with charters and populations of more than 10,000 could use the method in nonpartisan elections for the next five years.
The Secretary of State's Office would then report to the Legislature whether instant runoff voting works.
"If it works great, if it doesn't work, we'll know it," said Rep.Sandra Romero, D-Olympia.
Vancouver hasn't decided whether it would use instant runoff voting,but no other city has shown as much interest
The interest dates back to 1999. Voters that year amended the city charter to allow instant runoff voting for council elections.
But the city's probe into using the method went only as far as learning that state law doesn't allow it.
"We were stopped dead in our tracks," city lobbyist Mark Brown said. "This bill would enable us to go back to the table to discuss and more thoroughly analyze this."
Vancouver city attorney Ted Gathe said the 1999 vote authorized the council to establish instant runoff voting without another public vote.
Under instant runoff voting, all candidates skip the primary and go on the general election ballot. Instead of backing one candidate, voters rank candidates. Under Moeller's bill, voters would indicate their first, second and third choices.
In no one receives a majority of "first-choice" votes, instant runoff voting starts.
Vote counters take the ballots of the last-place finisher and count the "second-choice" selections as votes. The process continues until one candidate wins a majority.
Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey said some aspects of the method give him pause, like a scenario in which supporters of the least-popular candidate decide an election through their "second-choice" picks.
But he said that his office could conduct such an election.
"If the city of Vancouver wants us to do it, absolutely. We'll figure out the best way to do it," Kimsey said.
Kimsey said he would be reluctant to buy expensive technology, if any becomes available, without knowing whether instant runoff voting will stick.
But the auditor's office could issue voters a piece of paper and tally up their choices, a simple though labor-intensive and expensive way to conduct an election, he said.
House members critical of the bill said lawmakers shouldn't depart from traditional voting.
"We have a system right now in this state that's worked fairly well as evident by all of us sitting in this room," said a half-joking Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee. "I think we need to stick with what we got."
Said Rep. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood: "This is clearly something that will not stand the test of time, like our current system has."
Moeller said his interest began with citizens upset over "nasty, mud-slinging campaigns." Instant runoff voting will motivate candidates to not anger supporters of their opponents, he said.
"You don't want to sling mud and call people names if you have a chance of being the second choice," Moeller said.
Traditionally in nonpartisan races, the two top vote-getters in the primary advance to the general election if no one wins a majority. Proponents say instant runoff voting will end the expense of holding primaries that attract few voters.
If used in partisan elections, instant runoff voting would let citizens cast ballots for long-shot candidates without wasting their votes, said Brent White, co-chairman of the Coalition for Instant Runoff Voting and a Green Party member.
"We see it as a way to get our fair share of votes. We're under no illusion third-party candidates will win under IRV, but we'll get a better feel for our support," he said.