By Bryan Smith
Published August 1st 2008
In an effort to save money and help overseas voters be heard, states across the country are beginning to see the benefits of Instant Runoff Voting (IRV).
A balloting technique employed in many western democracies, IRV is slowly working its way into the American political system at the state and local level.
IRV is a type of balloting whereby voters can rank their choices for office. The ranking system allows for an instant recount of ballots of none of the candidates manages to get a clear majority. If an individual's first choice for office is eliminated, the next round is counted for their second choice. The process repeats itself until a clear winner emerges.
The advantage is that no additional elections must be conducted, saving taxpayer dollars, and eliminating turn-around problems associated with absentee ballots.
Michael Clingman, secretary of the Oklahoma State Election Board, said in an interview Thursday, that runoff elections are very difficult to conduct. The main sticking point is having to print, send, receive and count absentee ballots within the limited amount of time between the first primary and a runoff - this year, from July 29, to August 26.
In 2007, Arkansas implemented a version of IRV for overseas absentee voters. The Arkansas law allows absentee voters - and more recently members of the military - to rank their choices on an additional primary ballot.
Arkansas requires that county election boards send out a special absentee ballot for each preferential primary and general election. The IRV ballot is sent to the voter in addition to the regular absentee ballot.
If an individual voter's first choice on the regular absentee ballot is eliminated by voters, then their second choice is counted in the runoff election or general election to ensure their voice is heard. The method prevents problems that arise when a runoff occurs, and absentee ballots might not make it to voters and back again in time.
Similar measures have been adopted by the state of South Carolina as well as counties and municipalities across the country. South Carolina passed legislation allowing the process in 2006.
Statistics compiled by Fair Vote America, an IRV advocacy group, show that the program was very successful in helping count all votes. Some 70 percent of absentee voters filled out primary and runoff ballots. Data from 24 counties showed that 94 percent of those runoff ballots were "valid and successfully counted."
The report shows that "in the eight counties where both Democratic and Republican voters had runoff elections, the valid ballot rate in the runoff count was fully 100 percent - with all 62 of these voters casting valid ballots."
And there is a significant financial savings that can come with wider scale use of IRV, particularly for county and municipal elections.
This year, there was no need to conduct primary runoffs for state offices or larger congressional districts. Had U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe failed to oust his three opponents by more than 50 percent, the election board would have had to prepare for another statewide election, conceivably at considerable cost. The same holds true for larger congressional districts, for which large regional runoffs would have to be conducted.
At a cost of $10,000 each for each House and Senate runoff, costs can build up quickly. With three state House and two state Senate runoffs this August, Clingman estimated the election board will fork out an additional $50,000. Adding to that cost for taxpayers, are 28 runoff elections in 24 counties. Municipal elections also require frequent runoffs.
To combat costs, several states have passed legislation allowing municipalities to implement IRV. For most of these states, laws allow cities to choose whether or not they will use IRV.
But opponents argue that IRV systems are quixotic and require too much voter education. The complicated nature of IRV was the main objection heard some of the states that passed related legislation.
Clingman, too, said that educating voters can be difficult, and sometimes results can be different than people expect. In Australia and in parts of Europe, elections have sometimes come out with unexpected finishes, causing anger.
But the system has been used for years in other countries with much success.
Exit polling conducted in 2007 by North Carolina State University on IRV ballots in Hendersonville, North Carolina, showed that voters preferred the IRV method as opposed to holding additional runoff elections. Nine voters out of ten said the ballots were "somewhat easy to understand."
Other states using IRV systems include:
- Arkansas (adopted 2007; overseas voters)
- Burlington, VT (adopted 2005)
- Cambridge, MA (adopted 1941; proportional voting method of choice voting)
- Cary, North Carolina (adopted 2006)
- Hendersonville, North Carolina (adopted 2006)
- Louisiana (adopted c1990s; overseas and military voters)
- North Carolina (adopted 2006; certain judicial vacancies)
- San Francisco, CA (adopted 2002)
- Springfield, IL (adopted 2007; overseas and military voters)
- South Carolina (adopted 2006; overseas voters)
- Takoma Park, MD (adopted 2006)