My Turn: IRV works

By Scudder Parker
Published April 4th 2006 in Burlington Free Press

Voters and elections officials in Burlington should be congratulated on the smooth implementation of instant runoff voting (IRV) during the recent mayoral race. No matter which candidate one supported in that election, there can be no dispute about how flawlessly the new IRV system performed in smoothly achieving a majority winner in a multi-candidate race.

Because this was the first use of IRV in Vermont, many thought of the Burlington race as a test case for its possible adoption to establish majority voting in statewide elections. We must conclude that IRV passed the test with flying colors. The bill to adopt IRV statewide therefore deserves attention from lawmakers this year.

With IRV, instead of marking an "X" next to one candidate, voters rank them in order of choice. The counting uses voters’ rankings to simulate a series of runoff elections to determine a winner with a majority of the vote. That means that if a voter's first choice is eliminated in the first round, that voter’s second choices would still count.

IRV does everything a traditional runoff system does to ensure the winner of an election has popular support — but it does so in one election rather than two. Compared to traditional runoff elections, IRV saves taxpayer dollars by avoiding the need for a second polling day, eases the burdens on election officials and, most importantly, avoids the problem of low voter turnout in runoff elections.

It's a simple, common-sense reform that can greatly improve our democratic process. And the system worked flawlessly in Burlington:
 - An exit poll showed voters overwhelmingly preferred IRV to the old voting system.
 - Voters had no difficulty with the system, with no increase in spoiled ballots.
 - IRV has many benefits including giving voters a wider range of choices, eliminating the spoiler factor, and decreasing negative campaigning.

In the mayoral election, the great majority of voters participated in the instant runoff election by ranking one the two finalists. In contrast, consider the voter turnout in this year’s conventional runoff election for Burlington’s Ward 7 City Council seat. Fewer than 50 percent of the citizens who voted on Town Meeting Day turned out for that runoff.

There are other benefits to instant runoff voting. If Vermont had IRV for statewide elections, we would no longer have to rely on the state Legislature to decide an election for governor, lieutenant governor, or treasurer by secret ballot. That’s what happens now if no candidate for those offices receives a majority of the vote on Election Day. IRV keeps the election in the hands of the voters.

IRV also eliminates the perceived problem of “spoiler” candidates in elections. With IRV, voters are free to vote for their preferred candidate without fear that doing so might inadvertently help to elect the candidate they support the least.

Finally, IRV rewards candidates who appeal to a majority of voters. This system helps to discourage the kind of extreme, negative campaigning that is becoming so commonplace today. After all, candidates are vying to obtain first choice rankings, but also to be the second choice of supporters of other candidates.

IRV backers have made sure that implementing IRV will be easy for local elections administrators even if the whole state doesn’t purchase the IRV-ready equipment used in Burlington’s IRV election. It does not require communities to purchase any new voting machines or software, and polling officials won’t do the IRV tabulations. Instead, they simply count the first choices just as they count votes now and report those results to the state. If there is no initial majority winner, the IRV tabulation is treated like a recount under current law with counting held at the various county courthouses. Most election officials would not have to deal with the details of the IRV tabulation.

The adoption of IRV statewide would require resources for voter education. That’s important in order to avoid possible confusion when the program is rolled out for the first time. But as we saw in Burlington, a strong education program can all but eliminate voter difficulty with IRV. In fact, exit polling from Burlington found that voters by a four to one margin favored IRV over the old system.

IRV has been used for decades in various places in the U.S. and around the world. It is a simple, commonsense reform that can greatly improve our democratic process. I urge the legislators of all political parties to give fair consideration to the bill this year so that we can hold up the principle of majority rule in our statewide elections.

Scudder Parker is Democratic candidate for governor of Vermont.