Instant runoff is a fair, smart voting process

By Editorial, Athens Banner-Herald
Published December 10th 2006 in Athens Banner-Herald
Talk for a minute or two to any of the county elections officials who had to gear up for last week's runoff balloting, and you're likely to hear an impassioned argument for something called "instant runoff" voting.

It's an argument worth some attention from state and local officials, in that it's a fiscally responsible way to allow citizens to exercise their right to vote. It's also a fair way to immediately settle elections, keeping both voters and candidates from slogging through additional weeks of political campaigning after a general election.

Here's how instant runoff balloting works: Instead of marking a single choice for a given elected office in the general election, voters are asked to rank the candidates in the order of their preference. If no candidate receives a majority (50 percent plus one) of the vote, the last-place candidate, as determined by voters' first-choice votes, is eliminated, and the second-choice votes of those who cast ballots for the defeated candidate are tallied. The process of eliminating the last-place candidate and recounting the second-choice votes continues until a single candidate has amassed a majority of the ballots cast.

The fiscal desirability of instant runoff voting is immediately apparent. Settling an election after a single round of voting eliminates printing runoff ballots for absentee and provisional voting, paying poll workers and handling the other costs associated with setting up and operating polling places. As an example, the Dec. 5 runoff in Georgia - which for most of the state featured only one little-noted race for a seat on the Public Service Commission - carried costs ranging from a few thousand dollars for the smaller counties in the state to hundreds of thousands of dollars in the state's most populous counties.

But there are any number of other benefits to instant runoffs. Obviously, it eliminates the possibility of minor third-party candidates "spoiling" an election by taking enough votes from one major party candidate to elect another party's candidate.

It's also likely to be an incentive for voters to get to the polls, since they know their vote still could have an impact, even when their first-choice candidate isn't elected.

Instant runoff voting also carries the potential to make candidates more responsive to the needs and concerns of a wider array of voters. With an instant runoff system, the smart play for political candidates will be to appeal to as many individual voters as they can, rather than relying solely on partisan support to win an election. Even in jurisdictions like Athens-Clarke County, where elections for local offices are nonpartisan, instant runoff voting likely would prompt political candidates to address the concerns of a wide variety of voters.

Certainly, if discussion of instant runoff voting in Georgia moves beyond just county elections officials, voters will have a number of understandable questions and concerns about it.

But the likelihood of some initial resistance to a new approach to casting ballots shouldn't dissuade local and state officials from at least beginning a discussion of the clear merits of instant runoff voting.