A Better Way to Elect Virginia's Next Governor

By Steven Hoeschele
Published March 21st 2005 in The Washington Post

"As Virginia goes, so goes the South," say Virginia Democrats. That's why Virginia's gubernatorial campaign may be the nation's hottest race this year.

Outgoing governor Mark R. Warner (D) has made no effort to quash rumors of a presidential bid, and he probably will seize travel opportunities to raise funds for Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine (D), who hopes to succeed him. Last month the two Democrats happily embraced the candidacy of Warrenton's Republican mayor, George B. Fitch, who says he will challenge the presumptive GOP nominee, former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, in the June primary.

Fitch's candidacy will take not only time and money that Kilgore would otherwise direct against his Democratic rival, it is likely to highlight divisions in the Virginia Republican Party largely caused by tax policy. These rifts, Democrats hope, will erupt during the gubernatorial campaign.

Last month Republican State Sen. H. Russell Potts (R-Winchester) also announced he was joining the race as an "independent Republican" alternative to Kaine and Kilgore. He says he will challenge them on the November ballot. News of Potts's bid set off spin from both parties.

Pleased Democrats pointed to discord in the state GOP and noted that Potts's run as an independent would pull votes away from the Republican nominee.

"One would be a fool to underestimate Russ Potts," Warner said. "Today the liberal, high-tax lobby has a second candidate to choose from," Kilgore quipped.

But Kilgore has cause to worry about facing GOP opponents. In plurality elections, in which the highest vote recipient wins, bases of support can be divided; in three-way races, it's called the "spoiler effect." The "Nader factor" in the 2000 presidential election is cited by many Democrats and Greens to show how even a few percentage points of the vote can "swing the election." This effect is often cited by proponents of instant runoff voting.

The instant runoff method of voting eliminates the spoiler problem by simulating a series of runoffs designed to produce a majority winner. Instead of returning to the polls in a traditional runoff election, voters rank candidates as their first, second and third choices, etc., on one ballot; candidates then are eliminated in the counting process, rather than in a separate election.

Voters could, for example, rank a wild-card candidate first, and a major-party candidate second or third. In that way, if the minor-party candidate doesn't make the cut, the voter's second or third choice still would count.

So in Virginia, moderate Republicans might make Potts their first choice and Kilgore or even Kaine their second. Because the second choice of Potts's supporters would be highly sought-after, Kaine and Kilgore would have to respect the candidacy of the "independent Republican."

Republicans may look at the groups and localities that have adopted instant runoff voting and write them off as liberal bastions: San Francisco, Berkeley, Burlington, the Green Party. But the Utah Republican Party has used the method at nominating conventions, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has promoted it for years. So perhaps critics ought to rethink their stance on small "r" republican values such as majority rule and pluralistic debate.

Indeed, it behooves Virginia Republicans, who control both state legislative chambers, to push for instant runoff voting. While state Republicans may not be able to agree on taxes, they would be daft not to adopt a measure that would ensure their differences do not entail failure at the ballot box.

In this Virginia election, instant runoff voting would benefit the Republican Party by consolidating its voting power, even while the party fielded two candidates. Greens, Libertarians and all other minor parties also would gain support from voters who might otherwise be afraid to stray from major parties.

While demographics, parties and candidates determine specific cases in which instant runoff voting and other electoral reforms aid one faction or another, one group always stands to benefit: voters. Competition, fairness and majority rule are the engines that drive representative democracy.

A Virginia resident, Steven Hoeschele is the IRV America program associate at FairVote - the Center for Voting and Democracy.