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Provo Daily Herald (Utah)

An instant improvement
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 runoff.

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 Herbert.

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.


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