Why we need runoff voting

By Editorial
Published November 20th 2005 in Trenton Times
The obvious lesson of the oh-so-close electoral races for Mercer County clerk and 12th District Assembly seat is: Every vote counts. People who stay home on Election Day are helping elect the candidates they like least.

But there's a less obvious, but equally important, message in that 12th District race. New Jersey needs to change its method of voting to ensure that, among the voters who DO go to the polls, the majority rules. It's nothing less than the bedrock principle of democracy.

Here's what happened in the 12th District, which comprises East Windsor, Hightstown and most of Monmouth County:

Republican challenger Jennifer Beck got the most votes among the four major-party candidates and was elected to one of the two Assembly seats. Democratic incumbent Robert Morgan got the fewest votes among the four and was defeated. Of the two candidates in between, incumbent Democrat Michael Panter was leading Republican challenger Declan O'Scanlon by about 70 votes late last week. If that lead holds up through a possible recount, Mr. Panter will be re-elected.

But the Green Party also fielded two candidates in the 12th District. Each received more than 2,300 votes. If the Greens hadn't run, one can reasonably assume that most of the people who voted for them would have voted for Democrats or Republicans instead, and the outcome of the race could well have been different. As Steve Welzer of East Windsor pointed out in a letter to The Times Friday, Democrats can argue that Green Party voters would have been more likely to vote for Democratic candidates, perhaps in large enough numbers to have returned Assemblyman Morgan to office.

Candidates of the Green Party, or any other minor party, or no party at all, have a perfect right to run for office. They don't deserve to be stigmatized as "spoilers," as Ralph Nader so famously was labeled in the 2000 presidential election. And voters should be free to vote for such candidates without worrying that by so doing they are contributing to the election of the candidate whom they like least of all.

Some jurisdictions, including the city of Trenton, hold runoff elections between the top two finishers in a multi-candidate race in which no candidate receives a majority vote. But runoffs are expensive and time-consuming and usually result in a smaller turnout on the second go-around. The best solution, one that is used in San Francisco and a handful of other U.S. communities and is common overseas, is "instant runoff voting" (IRV), a system in which the voter lists his or her choices on the ballot in descending order. During the count, as candidates with the fewest first-choice votes are eliminated, their votes are reallocated to other candidates, so that in the end one candidate has a majority of all votes cast. As Mr. Welzer wrote, "A voter can rank a minor party candidate No. 1 and a major party candidate No. 2, knowing that his or her ballot will never `spoil' for the major party candidate."

The system is tailor-made for the electronic voting that is coming into widespread use. In the New Jersey Legislature, however, except for a few good- government advocates like Assemblyman Bill Baroni, R-Hamilton, the need for this reform has been ignored. Citizens who want to make certain that their votes are effective should demand that their lawmakers enact it.

Further information on IRV is available on the Web site of the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org).