Takoma Park's New Vote System Makes Debut
Instant Runoff Not Needed This Time

By Miranda S. Spivack
Published February 8th 2007 in Washington Post
Takoma Park, among the first places in the country to label itself a nuclear-free zone, is once again in the vanguard of a political movement: instant runoff voting.

In last week's special election for City Council, the city became the first in Maryland and one of only a handful in the nation prepared to use the system, which allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference: first, second, third and beyond. If no candidate wins by a majority, a system can be employed that involves adding up second- and third-place votes to get a majority.

Advocates say the system, known as IRV, is a more efficient way to run elections when more than two candidates are running, because it provides a runoff on the spot, and there is no need to gear up for another election. It also may encourage multiple candidates because none would be considered a spoiler who could draw votes from others.

Among its most vocal supporters is Ralph Nader, who was accused in the tight 2000 presidential race of siphoning votes from Democratic candidate Al Gore.

Those who favor IRV hope that other Maryland communities will try the system. It is used in London, Ireland and Australia, as well as in San Francisco and Burlington, Vt. Voters in Oakland and Davis, Calif., as well as Minneapolis and Pierce County in Washington state, have approved the system.

Takoma Park's government was geared up to use the system, endorsed by voters and approved last year by the City Council, in last week's three-way race to pick a replacement for Marc Elrich, who resigned last year after he was elected to the Montgomery County Council.

The vote had the potential to be the perfect laboratory for the new system because it was an off-year election and voter turnout was not expected to be large, said City Clerk Jessie Carpenter.

Vote counting also was expected to be swift, Carpenter said, because of the turnout and because the city used paper ballots. There was no need to program a voting machine to count first-, second- and third-place selections, something that machines are capable of but that few are set up to do, said Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, which is pushing for adoption of IRV nationwide.

It turned out that in Takoma Park's election last week, the IRV system wasn't necessary.

Voters selected Reuben Snipper, 61, a government statistician, with a majority.

Snipper said the possibility of using the IRV system changed the race's dynamics.

"I had every reason to believe this was going to be a close race," he said. "It meant that when I knocked on a door, if a person indicated they were going to vote for another candidate, I didn't just leave right away. I tried to persuade them I would be a good second choice."

Snipper won with 107 votes in the nonpartisan election. He defeated Eric Hensal (72 votes) and Alexandra Quéré Barrionuevo (23 votes). There was one write-in.

Richie said he's not disappointed there was no trial run.

Richie, who lives in Takoma Park and helped persuade the community to adopt the IRV system, said his organization surveyed voters coming out of the polls to see how they liked IRV. Forty-five voters said they thought it made the campaign more positive; only one said it did not.

That may stem from candidates' need to market themselves to voters whose minds are made up, he said. Those voters may be more inclined to pick a candidate as a second choice if they have a positive encounter on the campaign trail, he said.

"They needed to be able to say, 'Here's my case for listing me second,' " Richie said.

The IRV system incorporates the runoff in tallying the ballots. If no candidate is the first choice by a majority, the counting begins anew. The candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is knocked out, and the second choices are counted and added to the first-choice votes for the remaining candidates. The system continues if that still doesn't give one candidate a majority.