Clark tries 'choice voting'
Effort to make each vote count

By Taryn Plumb
Published October 10th 2005 in Worcester Telegram & Gazette

It’s safe to say some Bay Staters find voting about as effective as bailing out the RMS Titanic with a teacup.

Jack Haringa, a Worcester schoolteacher, admitted to feeling that way on occasion.

“If I lived in a swing state, I’d feel like I had more influence,” he said. “I’m tired of voting for the lesser of two evils.”

That sort of mentality led Clark University students to change the way they vote in student council elections. Now they’re using “choice voting,” a ballot system that proponents believe guarantees every vote will count.

Their hope is to drum up enough support in the next few months to present their model to the city and state — and maybe help ease the voting pains of ballot-casters such as Mr. Haringa.

Here’s the gist of choice voting: Voters rank candidates in the order they prefer them: first, second, third, etc. During ballot counting, if there is no clear majority winner, an “instant run-off” occurs. That means that if a voter’s first choice has no possible chance of winning, the vote is transferred to the voter’s second choice.

A second round of counting takes place, and the votes of those who supported an eliminated candidate now count for their second choice. This counting and eliminating process repeats until a candidate has more than half the votes or emerges as the clear winner.

It may sound a little intricate and unorthodox, but it’s been proven elsewhere. San Francisco, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, London and 40 colleges in the United States use choice voting in some form, said Zo Tobi, a Clark sophomore and champion of choice voting. It’s also been the preferred system in Cambridge for more than 60 years.

And it’s gaining steam on the state front. Bills are being examined by the Legislature’s joint committee on election laws that call for choice voting to be used during certain state elections.

Clark is slightly ahead of the curve; its student council — or StudCo, as it’s known on campus — voted to adopt choice voting in February. It was used for the first time in student council elections two weeks ago.

“If we don’t have a voting system that works for us, we don’t have anything,” said Mr. Tobi, who volunteered this fall with FairVote, a nonpartisan group that works to promote competitive elections. “When you rank candidates, you don’t ever have to worry about wasting your vote.”

Champions such as Mr. Tobi argue that choice voting is preferable to standard plurality voting because it protects majority rule and increases voter involvement. For candidates, Mr. Tobi said, it eliminates the “spoiler effect,” which is when similar contenders pull votes from one another — think of Ralph Nader’s effects on Al Gore’s chances in the 2000 election — because they want to attract their opponents’ supporters enough to be ranked second. Likewise, it encourages positive campaigning and eliminates much nasty mudslinging, he contended.

But not everyone sees choice voting as a preferred system. Detractors such as StudCo president Kevin Ready find it cumbersome and unnecessary.

“I’m confused as to why it’s better to manipulate votes and force majority,” he said. “Maybe I’m old school with the one person, one vote mentality.”

State Sen. Edward M. Augustus Jr., D-Worcester, hasn’t endorsed or disapproved choice voting, but he questioned the value and expressed reservations as well.

“My concern is it will make it more complicated for the average person to understand,” he said.

Mr. Tobi acknowledged that worry, but said he thinks things are worse under current plurality rules.

“We have a situation now where those elected are not necessarily the ones preferred by the majority of voters,” he said.

Clark StudCo treasurer Dylan Mawdsley agreed with him, to some extent.

“I don’t see a problem with plurality voting, but (choice voting) is beneficial,” he said. “It gives you actual majority.”


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