Are instant runoffs the future of elections?

By Cindy Swirko
Published September 28th 2005 in Gainesville Sun
Gainesville or Alachua County voters could choose their commissioners in a new way if a move toward instant runoff elections takes hold.

The County Commission learned about the issue Tuesday night while Gainesville city commissioners will soon hear a presentation on it.

"I'm here today because I care about elections," said Jeremiah Blanchard, a University of Florida teaching assistant. "Sometimes regular people like me feel disenfranchised because of the way the system works. I vote but I know people who don't because they don't feel their vote counts. This is a way to make us feel more a part of the system."

Instant runoff voting is essentially a ranking of the candidates when the ballot is cast. The voter marks the ballot next to the candidate of first choice, second choice and on down the list of candidates.

Any candidate who receives a majority of the first-place votes is elected.

If no candidate receives a majority of the first-place votes, the candidate with the least total of first-place votes is eliminated. The second-choice votes from these ballots are then transferred to the other candidates. The ballots are recounted, and candidates are eliminated in this method until one winner has a majority of the vote.

Alachua County would need legislative approval to change its charter to allow instant runoff voting. It would also require approval of voters through a referendum, County Attorney Dave Wagner said.

The Gainesville City Commission, meanwhile, will soon be revising its charter and could switch to instant runoffs through that process, officials said. The city's Charter Review Committee has been discussing the matter.

County Commission Chairwoman Cynthia Chestnut said she would like to see the city try it first.

"I personally would like to see it as a pilot project, but not with the County Commission," Chestnut said. "If the city of Gainesville wanted to pilot it, I would be interested in that. I would also like to see what effect it has on voter turnout."

Susan McManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, said instant runoff voting is gaining popularity, though it is still not commonly used.

McManus said she is not aware of it being used anywhere in Florida.

It saves money by not staging a runoff election. It generally ensures that candidates are selected in elections with the highest turnout. Runoff elections typically draw fewer voters.

"Obviously, one of the biggest pros that people cite are cost savings," McManus said. "It's gaining momentum among the good-government crowd. Their biggest concern is the drop-off in participation. If you have a second election, turnout drops, so people are saying, 'why not let people pick their first and second choice on the spot?'"

One drawback, McManus said, is that it can be confusing.

McManus also said some voters believe a second campaign is useful in assessing the two top vote-getters against each other.

A recommendation that the County Commission consider switching to instant runoff voting was included in a report by a citizen's panel formed by the commission to study county financing and cost-saving measures.

Panel member Charlie Grapski was a key proponent of it and he urged the commission Tuesday to consider it. He is also on the Gainesville Charter Review Committee.

"Nobody in Florida has done it yet so Gainesville and Alachua County would be the leader," Grapski said. "It provides a much more efficient election system and a much more representative and democratic process."

Grapski said campaigns are less negative and campaign money less of a factor in instant runoffs.

Instant runoff voting has been tried in San Francisco and a few other cities. It has long been used in several countries, including Ireland and Australia.

A variation on instant runoff is when the top vote-getters fill the positions available. That is used in several states and cities.

Cindy Swirko can be reached at 374-5024 or Cindy.swirko@gvillesun.com