‘Instant runoffs’ will save time, money, irritation

By Alan F. Zundel
Published June 5th 2008 in Eugene Register Guard

Don’t you get frustrated when an election campaign that seemed to be ending just goes on and on?

You’re tired of the TV ads, the candidates are tired of traveling and giving speeches, and the campaign volunteers are just plain tired. Worst of all, you suspect it doesn’t have to be this way.

I’m not talking about just the Clinton-Obama race — the complexity of the presidential primary system is in a category of its own. I’m talking about our local nonpartisan races that may or may not end with the primary election in May, depending on whether any candidate gets a majority of the votes.

And so we have the competition between Kitty Piercy and Jim Torrey for mayor of Eugene, and the race between Bobby Green and Rob Handy for the North Eugene county Commission seat. In each case, with a shift of just 1.5 percent of the vote the race would now be over.

Instead, these races will now drag out another half a year until the general election in November.

Some might be tempted to blame the couple of “minor” candidates in each race, each of whom had next to no prospect of winning but still collected enough votes to keep either of the two “major” candidates from getting a majority. But this blame would be totally misplaced — they earned their votes fair and square, and have as much right to run for office as any other citizen.

No, the blame should be placed squarely on our electoral system. And your suspicion was correct — it doesn’t have to be this way.

Our electoral system was not carved in stone and handed down to us from George Washington and friends; it has evolved over time and been changed when necessary.

In my opinion it is now necessary to change it again. The solution to this problem and a host of others is actually to be found in an unused section of the Oregon Constitution, Section 16 of Article II: “Provision may be made by law for the voter’s direct or indirect expression of his first, second or additional choices among the candidates for any office.”

Voters could be given the option of ranking candidates in order of preference, for example: My first choice is candidate C, my second choice is candidate A, and my third choice is candidate D. This is called preferential voting, more commonly known in the United States as instant runoff voting. If no candidate gets a majority of votes — as happened in the Piercy-Torrey and Green-Handy races — then the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and the results are recalculated using each voter’s top choice among the remaining candidates.

That is why preferential voting is called “instant runoff” — because you don’t have to have a second election, with all of the additional costs of time, energy, money and patience involved.

The choice of a majority of voters is settled in one election, after one campaign; we need not go through the processing of campaigning and voting a second time.

IRV was invented in Britain and America but has been used most extensively in Australia, where it was first implemented a century ago. A movement to institute IRV in the United States has been spreading over the past two decades, and a host of cities and counties in various states have voted to adopt it. Judging by those that have implemented it (notably San Francisco), it works fine and the voters love it.

Not least among its several advantages over our current system is that IRV opens up the political system by freeing potential candidates from the “spoiler” accusation and voters from the “wasted vote” worry. If you really like what you hear from one of those “minor” candidates, you can support her or him without feeling like you are hurting the “major” candidate you prefer — just make the latter your second choice.

Imagine doing without the May primary election for our local races, and enduring just one campaign season before the general election in November. Imagine having the option of ranking the candidates in the order of your preference. Imagine being able to take candidates seriously if they have good ideas but not much money or name recognition.

All of this is possible, if we bring instant runoff voting to Lane County elections.

Alan F. Zundel of Eugene is a former political science professor at the University of Nevada — Las Vegas and the president of a new local group, IRV-Lane County (www.irv-lane.org).

 
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Legislation and Litigation

  • HB 2638 Allows county or city to adopt instant runoff voting system for nomination or election of candidates to county or city office.