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The Myrtle Beach Sun News

June 27, 2004

Instant runoff better serves voters, taxpayers



South Carolinians are known as practical voters and frugal taxpayers. But the state just paid for an expensive and avoidable runoff election - one that disenfranchised military voters serving in Iraq.

That's because South Carolina held a statewide runoff election for the Republican nomination for U.S. senator just two weeks after the first primary. Having Republicans choose between Jim DeMint and David Beasley cost taxpayers about $3 million on top of the millions already spent to hold the June 8 primary. If you think there has to be a more efficient and less expensive way to nominate a candidate, you are right.

It's called instant runoff voting, and it achieves the goal of the runoff primary - a nominee supported by a majority of the voters - in a single election.

The system would likely have generated the same results, yet saved taxpayers millions. It also would make life easier for voters, who only have to turn out at the polls once; it also would have taken more money out of politics, as candidates would only have had to raise funds and campaign in one election.

It's simple. When voters go to the polls, they cast a vote for their favorite candidate, but they also specify their alternate choices. If their favorite candidate advances to the runoff, their vote counts for that candidate. If their favorite gets eliminated, their vote counts their next favorite in the "instant" runoff. Voters specify these choices by ranking candidates in order of choice.

Imagine that the Republican primary had used instant runoff voting in the [race among] David Beasley, Jim DeMint, Thomas Ravenel [and three other candidates]. Since no candidate received an outright majority of first choices, the instant runoff takes place.

Beasley and DeMint supporters get to continue to support their favorite candidate, but [the rest of the voters] still can support their runoff choice, either Beasley or DeMint. The key to the instant runoff is that the rankings allow all voters, regardless of whom they supported as a first choice, to express a preference [on the other candidates]. Ravenel backers June 8 would probably have overwhelmingly favored DeMint, boosting him to a majority win in a single election.

In addition to saving taxpayers millions of dollars in election costs, the instant runoff has other important benefits:

It better assures the votes of members of the armed services have their votes count. It's a logistical nightmare to try to get runoff ballots out in time for overseas voters to participate in runoffs a mere two weeks after the initial primary.

Second, it reduces negative campaigning and promotes reaching out to more voters because candidates know that winning may require being the runoff choice of their opponents' supporters.

It fulfills one goal of campaign finance reform because candidates don't need to raise more money for a second election.

It maximizes voter turnout because voters don't have to return to the polls for special runoff elections.

In the past decade of federal primary runoffs, voter turnout has declined by an average of 35 percent between the first round the runoff. Voter turnout dropped 12 percent last week.

Because of these benefits, legislation for instant runoff voting was considered in 20 states in 2003-04 and adopted in two cities.

To save millions of tax dollars, reduce fund-raising demands on candidates and avoid unnecessary runoff elections, the General Assembly should consider enacting instant runoffs for all future primary elections and allowing cities to use them for local elections.


Contact the writers at Center for Voting and Democracy, 6930 Carroll Ave, Suite 610, Takoma Park, MD 20912.

 


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