May 16, 2004
Amid the political machinery known as Utah's caucus-convention
system, there is only one part that could reinvigorate politics and
let people know their vote really counts.
It's so-called "instant runoff" voting. The state
Republican Party has used it for the past four years in selecting
party officers and candidates. The system is efficient and would
bypass the silly and wasteful caucus-convention system, which allows
an easily manipulated oligarchy to anoint candidates.
The Republicans' recent selection of candidates for governor
shows how the instant runoff system works. Each delegate makes
first- and second-choice votes on a ballot. If no candidate gets 60
percent of the votes in the first round, the lowest candidate on the
ballot is eliminated, and the votes for that candidate are
redistributed to candidates selected as second choices on the
loser's ballots. The process is repeated until one candidate gets a
60 percent majority or until two candidates are left for a primary
It was this system that allowed Nolan Karras, the Republican
convention's dark horse, to force Jon M. Huntsman Jr. into a primary
runoff in the seventh round of counting.
The system is already used on a national level in Australia and
would work well in Utah or even in the United States as a whole.
There are many benefits.
Among other things, it gives third-party candidates better entree
into the political system. Small parties need to win a number of
votes in each election to remain eligible for federal funding. But
because of the dominance of the Democratic and Republican parties,
many people believe a vote for the Green, Libertarian, Reform or
other third-party candidate is wasted. If voters can cast ballots
for a first and second choice, they can cast a guilt-free vote for a
third-party candidate, giving the party the support it needs to
remain viable without wasting a vote entirely.
Instant runoffs validate individual voters. Even if a voter's
first choice doesn't make it, that voter can swing an election with
his second-place pick. In the close presidential elections of 1960
and 2000, things might have been different if voters could have
picked more than one candidate in order of preference. A voter might
have chosen Ralph Nader, for example, but failing to get a
sufficient percentage of total votes, his vote would go to the
second choice -- either Bush or Gore. The whole Florida debacle
might have been avoided.
The so-called instant runoff system would encourage more people
to get involved in politics. Currently, many Utah County candidates
go unchallenged, mainly because Utah County Democrats and
third-party activists view running for office in our GOP-dominated
valley as a suicide mission. Instant runoffs would help level the
field. As we saw at the Republican convention, an underdog can make
a respectable showing by being the second choice of enough people.
An instant runoff system would make caucuses and conventions
unnecessary, and the result would be more reflective of the will of
the people. It's a major problem when the system allows a few
delegates to name a public official without the public ever voting,
as was the case with the Utah County Commission seat vacated by Gary
Five Republicans sought Herbert's seat, and county Republican
delegates chose one, Larry Ellertson, to appear on the November
ballot. But since no candidate from another party is running,
Ellertson will take the seat by default. He is a good man, and we do
not disparage him in any way. But the fact remains that he was not
chosen by the people of Utah County. With an instant runoff system
as part of a primary election, the result might have been different.
If Utah wants to boost public participation and make the
electoral process work better, it should embrace instant runoffs and
get rid of the caucus-convention system.