The promise of a majority count
Takoma Park mulls instant runoff voting

By Sean Sands
Published November 11th 2005 in The Takoma Park Gazette
Takoma Park voters have given the city the go-ahead to adopt Maryland’s first instant runoff voting system, where voters rank their choices on the ballot instead of simply selecting one candidate.

"If people haven’t heard of instant runoff voting, the approach sounds very exotic. And Takoma Park has a little bit of an exotic image around the state,” said Robert Richie, executive director of the national nonprofit FairVote, The Center for Voting and Democracy, which is based in Takoma Park. "But at the same time, this is such a big win that clearly reached so deeply into the city’s voters that it reached a lot of mainstream people.”

Of the nearly 2,400 votes cast in the referendum on Tuesday, 1,992 residents voted in favor of the measure.

"Takoma Park did take the lead in giving the franchise to [non-U.S. citizens] in the city, and several other localities followed suit,” Richie said. "So I hope in this case, the margin helps tell the story, and we’ll definitely emphasize that as we talk to people around the state about instant-runoff voting: that a huge percentage of people thought this was a good idea.”

Richie used the mayoral race in Annapolis as an example of how instant-runoff voting would have ensured that the winner received a majority of the votes cast. Mayor Ellen Moyer (D) won re-election with 45 percent of the vote, while challengers Gilbert Renaut (I) and George O. Kelley Sr. (R) received 36 percent and 18 percent respectively.

Had Annapolis used instant runoff voting, voters would have ranked the three candidates on the ballot. Because no one candidate received a majority (50 percent plus one) of the votes, election judges would have eliminated Kelley from the race, holding an instant runoff between Moyer and Renaut by tabulating the second-choice votes on the ballots that initially went to Kelley. Those votes would have been added to Moyer’s and Renaut’s totals.

The end result would be one candidate receiving a majority, as opposed to the plurality system used today, where the winner is the candidate who receives the highest number of votes. Instant runoff voting would be used only in races where there are three or more candidates.

"I think instant runoff voting makes inordinate sense in any election,” said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Dist. 22) of University Park, who sponsored legislation in 2001 that would have implemented instant runoff voting in statewide elections. "It allows for and doesn’t discourage multiple voices and multiple candidates, and I think it increases ‘small-d’ democracy. If more and more jurisdictions adopt it, people will see that it works, and maybe they’ll be more open to utilizing it in broader elections, like statewide elections.”

Instant runoff voting, which is used in San Francisco, a handful of smaller American cities and Australia, also could change the way both voters and candidates approach elections: Negative campaign tactics, for instance, could prove costly.

"That wouldn’t be conducive to winning because you have to be people’s second choice as well as their first,” Richie said. "You definitely don’t want to alienate [another candidate’s] supporters, and I think that’s the most healthy change to the nasty campaigning, which is really off-putting to voters.”

The notion of changing how Marylanders vote does not seem to sit well with the political establishment.

"The two major parties that make up the members of the legislature are the ones who could potentially lose some of their power, authority and control,” Pinsky said. "So unless people really take an objective and enlightened view, some will play to their baser instincts and say, ‘Look, this could negatively affect me.’”

Audra Miller, communications director for the Maryland Republican Party, said the state GOP prefers the existing voting system.

"We believe in the primary process; primary elections are something that we back very strongly as an opportunity for members of the party to determine who the best candidate is to go on to the general election,” she said. "Therefore, we are not proponents of instant runoff voting.”

State Democrats have not discussed the issue, and Josh White, the state party’s executive director, said members would need to know more about instant runoff voting before debating its merits.

"Our first impression is that with every change in voting, there are probably just as many unintended consequences, and that there’s likely not going to be a panacea or a perfect way of doing it,” White said. "But at the moment, we can probably say that we feel comfortable with the current system.”

For now, FairVote plans on using its successful campaign in Takoma Park to spark discussion across the state, while possibly targeting Annapolis as the next place for a serious effort. Richie said his group also would push the issue at the state level.

"Unfortunately, state lawmakers think they are experts on election law,” he said. "If you come up through a system one way, they think that means it’s the only way.”

How instant runoffs work
  • Voters rank all the candidates.
  • If no one wins a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is dropped.
  • An instant runoff follows among remaining candidates by tabulating the second-choice votes only on the ballots that initially went to the lowest-drawing candidate.
  • Those totals are added to the remaining candidates’ totals.
  • The person with the majority of the votes wins.