Instant runoffs produce immediate, clear-cut winners, proponents say
By Jeff Brown
Published April 26th 2006 in The Dover Post
Dover’s leaders got a look at a possible voting system last week, one designed to ensure winning candidates take office with a majority of the votes.
Called Instant Runoff Voting, the system would be used when there are three or more candidates for an office and when none of those candidates gets at least 50% of the votes.
In Dover, which uses a plurality election system, this occurred during the 2004 municipal elections when six people competed for the office of mayor. Then-Councilman Steve Speed polled the most votes, but still received only 24% of the total.
A similar situation took place Saturday during New Orleans’ mayoral election, where 22 candidates were on the ballot. In that instance, no one scored a majority win, so a run-off election between the top two vote-getters has been scheduled for May 20.
Rob Richie, director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a non-partisan think-tank dedicated to study of the American electoral system, told the group that if both cities had used IRV, Speed would not have had to take office with approval from less than one-quarter of the voting electorate, and that New Orleans citizens would not have to hold an expensive second election and wait almost a full month to know the winner of the race.
“We believe IRV is the best system to elect one person,” Richie told his audience.
One person, one vote
Under the IRV concept, voters rank their preferences for a particular office, first making their primary choice, then indicating a second, third or even fourth preference. Ballots are counted for every voter’s primary choice, and if one of the candidates receives a majority, or 50% of the vote, that candidate is declared the winner, Richie said.
But if no one gets a majority, election officials would eliminate the candidate with the lowest vote totals. Ballots that listed that individual as a first choice would then be recounted, with the votes for the second preferred candidate on the ballots added to the totals of those remaining. If a candidate then gets at least 50% of the vote, he or she is the winner.
If not, the process continues until a majority winner is selected.
The system has been used successfully for nearly a century in Australia and has met with marked success in other nations, Richie said. It also has been implemented recently for elections in San Francisco, Burlington, Vt., and his own home base in Takoma Park, Md.
Courts have found the procedure completely valid, in keeping with the Constitution’s one-person, one vote mandate, Richie said.
The idea of instant runoff voting seemed to appeal to the city council and board of elections members at the meeting, as well as to those currently working on Dover’s Charter Review Commission.
“It’s an idea whose time has come,” noted BOE member Gerry Foss. “This is an idea that will be extremely appealing when people learn about it.”
However, charter commission chair Tom Leary said it could be some time before Doverites see runoff voting in their municipal elections. Voting machines, which the city borrows from the state of Delaware, would have to be upgraded and a public education effort would have to come first, he said. It is one idea the commission will be looking at as it completes its work, Leary added.
“I think it’s worth talking about,” he said. “It could work here if we wanted it to. Personally, I’m excited about it.”
More information about instant runoff voting can be found at the Center for Voting and Democracy website, www.fairvote.org.