Coming to a polling place near you: instant runoffs

By Rick Barry
Published January 12th 2007 in Pelican Press
City of Sarasota voters can opt to be among the first jurisdictions in Florida to institute the newest wrinkle in voting systems, the instant runoff, in the November election to extend the local option sales tax.

A campaign by the Sarasota Coalition for Instant Runoff Elections has gathered more than the necessary 3,079 signatures which City Clerk Billy Robinson's office has had checked, declared valid and Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent has certified.

The local victory is the first in a series of campaigns under way in 18 Florida counties by the state umbrella group, the Coalition for Instant Runoff Voting in Florida (on the web at:

The system has been used for decades in Ireland and Australia, and has been adopted in a half-dozen American cities, including Cambridge, Mass., San Francisco and San Diego, Cal., and Burlington, Vt.

Under the instant runoff system, voters rank the candidates in order of preference instead of merely choosing one, in races with three or more candidates. If one candidate gets a majority, the race is over. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and her second place votes are distributed as the voters specified.

The process continues until one candidate receives a majority.

Proponents say that under Florida's current system of plurality voting, in a three-candidate race, a candidate with barely more than one-third of the vote can be declared the winner, even if the other two candidates' views were most in line with the voting majority. In a four-way race, the winner might be acceptable to only 25 percent of the voters.

Besides diluting the influence of so-called "spoiler" candidates, advocates say instant runoff voting encourages diversity among those running for office, and voters aren't afraid to vote for minor party candidates in fear their vote will be wasted. And that diversity of views among candidates, in turn, encourages higher voter turnout.

It also saves thousands of dollars in eliminating the cost of runoff elections.

Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent says the proposal has merit, especially in that it saves jurisdictions money, but its implementation could be several years off. Dent said that at present no software has been certified in Florida to do those tabulations.

What's more, she said, interest in the state legislature is all but nonexistent, and state elections officials have higher priorities as well.

The proposal up for consideration this fall states that implementation will take place at some point after such software is developed for Florida, and certified. "As more and more jurisdictions require it, it will happen," she said, but the development and implementation process could be a long one.

Coalition leaders predict that within two years instant runoff voting software will be available and certified.

The proposal has been endorsed by the Green and Libertarian parties, the St. Petersburg Times, Tampa Tribune, Bradenton Herald and the Pelican Press.

The struggle to obtain those signatures was not an easy one, said coalition Chairman Anthony Lorenzo. Attempts to gain signatures at area grocery stores were met with calls by managers to Sarasota Police that resulted in a series of citations for trespassing and blocking sidewalks.

Most of those citations were dropped, and officers stopped implementing managers' demands to remove the petition-gatherers from their premises after City Attorney Bob Fournier issued a detailed memo Dec. 18 to Police Chief Peter Abbott informing him that such political activities were legal.

He wrote that most applicable court rulings have found that shopping centers and the like, which open their doors to the general public and welcome people to use their facilities are not entirely "private property" under the law, but are "quasi-public." And, under these circumstances, the rights inherent under the First Amendment lie "at the foundation of free government by free men," wrote Fournier, quoting a Bay County Circuit Court judge, and are therefore superior to businesses' claims their stores are private.

But Lorenzo is still personally barred from the Whole Foods Market downtown, and is the target of a lawsuit by Publix Super Markets, Inc., to prohibit his group's activities at Publix stores.

The Sarasota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has accepted his case, but ACLU-appointed representation awaits state approval.