Instant runoff: Alaska voters to decide change in electoral system

Published June 5th 2002 in Anchorage Daily News

An initiative on the August primary ballot could streamline elections in Alaska, except for the offices of governor and lieutenant governor. It deserves study.

Dubbed "instant runoff" or preferential voting, the system would have voters pick up to five candidates in preferential order. If one received a majority of first-place votes, he or she would win outright. If no candidate received a majority of firsts, then the last-place candidate would be eliminated, and that candidate's second choice picks would be counted for the remaining candidates who received them. Vote-counting would repeat the process until one candidate received a majority.

"It's like having a series of runoff elections," said initiative backer Ken Jacobus. "You've already voted for the second time." He said the goal is majority rule and savings on runoff elections, which often have poor turnouts and cost the taxpayers money.

Mr. Jacobus said preferential voting would increase turnout and allow supporters of minor candidates to vote their consciences and still potentially make a difference through the ranking of other candidates. He said campaigns might even become more civil, because candidates "have to court second-place votes as well as first-place votes."

San Francisco voters adopted instant runoff voting for city elections in March, and the system is used elsewhere -- in races for Lord Mayor of London and the Australian House of Representatives, for instance. If Alaska adopts instant runoffs, it would be the first state to do so.

The initiative would not affect elections for governor and lieutenant governor, because the Alaska Constitution states the winners of those elections are the candidates with the most votes; a majority isn't required. Change here would require a constitutional amendment.

But instant runoff voting would apply to the rest of state offices and would authorize the instant runoff option for local governments.

"It's good government. Whether it's Republican or Democrat, it's good government," said Mr. Jacobus, a Republican Party activist.

There's been little debate about the initiative so far. That should change between now and the Aug. 27 primary. The instant runoff is an idea worth a careful look by Alaskans. We shouldn't fear to improve our electoral system -- but we should be sure improvement is what we're doing with any change.

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