Election Day replay poses avoidable problems

Published November 29th 2002 in USA Today

Election Day is long gone for most Americans, but in Louisiana, campaigning is reaching a fever pitch as voters prepare to trudge back to the polls Dec. 7 for a runoff election. Incumbent Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, denied a majority of the vote in a field of nine on Nov. 5, faces the No. 2 vote-getter, Republican Suzanne Haik Terrell, in a new election that's costing millions of dollars more and luring President Bush back for a campaign visit Tuesday.

Unknown in much of the country, runoffs are used by Louisiana, eight other states — from Texas to North Carolina — and scores of cities. The idea is to make sure winners garner more than half the vote for public offices, an important goal that prevents fringe candidates from winning with a small minority of ballots in a crowded field.

But the system is needlessly costly — a $3 million tab for taxpayers in Alabama's runoff primaries alone this year. It sends candidates and their backers into a renewed frenzy of fundraising. And turnout frequently plummets from the earlier election.

There is a better way: instant runoffs. Instead of voting for just one candidate, voters rank their preferences for candidates from first to last. If no one receives a majority of first-choice votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated and the second choices from those ballots are added to the totals for the remaining candidates. The process continues until one candidate emerges with a majority. Ireland and Australia have used the system in national elections, and it has been adopted in parts of Great Britain.

Now, the idea is starting to catch on in the USA. Louisiana residents who vote from overseas by absentee ballot already have that option. San Francisco will start using instant runoffs next year and several other municipalities, largely in the West, are preparing to go the same route.

In Vermont and New Mexico, support for the idea is growing in response to significant third-party movements that raise the prospect of candidates regularly winning state offices with less than majority support. Several local non-binding votes in Massachusetts this year also showed support for the idea because of growing concern about candidates winning primaries and general elections with slim percentages.

Critics say ranking candidates violates the principle of "one man, one vote," an argument that spurred voters in Alaska to reject the system this year. But the courts disagree. Though the goal of ensuring that the "least objectionable" candidate wins might not always be achieved, that's less a worry than the risks of highly undemocratic minority representation under the current system.

Candidates aren't the only immediate winners from instant runoffs. The idea also saves money, spares voters the need to return to the polls, and improves the chances that the wishes of a majority are truly heard.