It's time for instant runoff voting

By Michael Fisher
Published January 22nd 2008 in Burlington Free Press
Vermont's constitutional framers established majority rule as a key principle from our very beginning. Surely we should be doing everything we can to uphold that principle. As the presidential primaries show, when there are more than two candidate choices, vote splitting can make it extremely hard to identify the rightful "winner." Just look at Iowa's caucuses, where Mike Huckabee "won" with barely a third of the Republican vote.

True democracy requires that we try to determine which candidate is preferred by a majority of the voters (more than 50 percent), rather than merely a plurality (more votes than any other single candidate). Separate runoff elections between the two highest vote getters are the traditional means of assuring a majority winner, but they cost a lot of money and typically result in a dismal drop-off in voter turnout. Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) is the best election method available because it essentially combines a regular election and a runoff into one, and therefore determines the majority winner.

Last year the Vermont Senate passed an IRV bill (S.108) with the support of the Secretary of State and advocacy groups, such as Common Cause, VPIRG, the League of Women Voters, and the Older Women's League. IRV would be instituted in November 2008 for U.S. Congressional elections in Vermont.

IRV is not new to Vermont, The 2006 Mayoral election in Burlington served as an important test for IRV. That election was a resounding success. Voters had no difficulty with the new ranked-choice ballot and exit polls showed that the overwhelming majority of voters preferred IRV to the old way of voting. The latest example is Cary, N.C., a city of 115,000 that ran IRV elections exactly as proposed for Vermont -- 96 percent of voters told exit pollsters the system was easy, more than 70 percent preferred it to their old system, and it saved the city from having to conduct a runoff.

IRV came about in Burlington after Burlington voters approved a charter amendment to adopt IRV. The amendment required ratification by the Legislature and governor. The Legislature ratified the amendment without issue. The League of Women Voters and most other civics organizations advocated strongly for the principle of majority rule. Gov. Douglas, instead of vetoing that IRV bill or letting it go into law without his signature, affirmatively signed IRV into law. The governor has not expressed any meaningful problems with the IRV method of election for the Burlington race. The only problem he has identified with statewide use of IRV is a constitutional question related to the application of IRV to constitutional offices (governor, lieutenant governor, and treasurer). As these races are no longer included in S.108, the governor no longer has any reason to consider vetoing the current IRV bill.

Some local election officials were concerned about an increase in election responsibilities as a result of IRV. Because of this, S.108 was carefully crafted to make sure that there would be no new vote counting responsibilities added to local election official's jobs. Should there be a need for a runoff, the vote counts will be held at designating regional centers and will be administered by state officials. In addition, the Secretary of State's Office will conduct a voter education campaign to educate voters about IRV.

Jurisdictions in Maryland, Minnesota, Washington, North Carolina, California, Colorado and Florida have already adopted IRV. Let's hope the state of Vermont will adopt this pro- democracy election reform measure this year as well.

Rep. Michael Fisher, a Democrat, is from Lincoln.

Research and Reports