Takoma Park Voters Back Candidate Ranking System

By Kaukab Jhumra Smith
Published November 9th 2005 in Capital News Services

Takoma Park residents overwhelmingly recommended adopting a new voting system Tuesday that would allow voters to rank candidates for city office in order of preference, rather than casting a ballot for just one.

Once the city charter is amended to reflect voter opinion, as is widely expected, Takoma Park will become the first city in Maryland to adopt instant runoff voting, which could begin in 2007.

Instant-runoff voting solves concerns about 'spoiler' candidates by eliminating contenders with the lowest voter rankings and advancing those with the highest until a winner emerges with a majority vote.

Advocates point to this year's three-candidate race for Annapolis mayor as an example of why instant-runoff voting is necessary. Democratic incumbent Ellen Moyer won re-election Tuesday with 46 percent of the vote, short of a clear majority. Independent candidate Gilbert T. Renaut received 36 percent and Republican George O. Kelley Sr. garnered 18 percent.

"There was lots of talk about spoiling" before the election, said Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, a Takoma Park-based national advocacy group.

"Once you have three candidates, people have to start making calculations about whether to vote for the person they really like or the person that they think has a better chance of winning," Richie said.

Marc Elrich, one of the system's earliest supporters on the Takoma Park City Council, agreed that instant-runoff voting gives people a chance "to vote their conscience."

He said he hoped Takoma Park would influence Montgomery County and other parts of the state to follow its example.

"If you could cast a vote for somebody who you thought was a better candidate," Elrich said, "you could make your statement and people would have a better idea for how the American people really feel."

Independent and third-party candidates could get a boost, while the two largest political parties could end up with a wake-up call, as voters more clearly signal their thinking, Elrich said.

He predicted that state jurisdictions holding off-year local elections would be the first to adopt the new system because they have more autonomy -- an important factor because state and county mandates require the use of electronic voting machines in general elections.

Maryland's electronic voting machines are not capable of handling instant runoff voting. Takoma Park used paper ballots in Tuesday's municipal elections.

"Based on the technology that exists today, (instant-runoff voting) would probably require paper ballots," said City Manager Barbara Matthews.

FairVote plans to lobby Gov. Robert Ehrlich's newly-formed election reform commission for state-wide adoption of the system, Richie said.

"It's still a new idea for U.S. politics," Richie said.

Mayor Kathy Porter, who won re-election Tuesday, said the biggest factor in increasing public acceptance of instant-runoff voting is to educate voters about how it works.

Going door-to-door in her campaign, she met many people unfamiliar with the system who approved of it once they understood it, Porter said.

Takoma Park's 84 percent favorable referendum was the strongest showing the idea has gotten in the country, Richie said.

"I'm very happy," Elrich said. "It shows that people understand and are interested in a more democratic ballot."