Instant runoffs would improve Lansing elections
Current two-round system discourages turnout, challenges

By John Gear
Published April 1st 2005 in Lansing State Journal

As senior engineering students, we had to design a complete power plant.

We would often get stuck, unable to see how to get the required results under budget. Our professor helped by making us learn to question our assumptions. I can still hear him gently mocking us, "Uh-oh, low on money! Time to start thinking!

Lesson learned. When I heard about a better way to elect politicians, I was intrigued.

It comes up because Lansing now heads toward another round of mayoral and City Council elections using our expensive two-round runoff system.

If three candidates file for any seat, we will run an entire expensive primary election to eliminate the "extras" - even though few voters pay attention in summertime.

What's the better way? It's instant runoff voting.

It works just like our current two-round runoff system - only faster, cheaper, and better, because we only have to vote once, using the preference ballot that Michigan law already allows.

(Preference voting is the technical name for the IRV method - it's just ranking your choices 1, 2, 3, the way you would rank your favorite Big 10 basketball teams or movies.)

Why faster?

Because it doesn't use two rounds to elect one candidate. We vote once, in November, when turnout is highest.

Why cheaper?

Because instead of paying for a primary election that doesn't even produce a winner, we pay for just one round of voting.

Why better?

Because IRV treats all candidates equally.

Today, if an incumbent draws just one opponent, neither must survive a primary. But if, in the next race over, more than two candidates file, they all must raise money twice and run in the primary.

Worse, two-round runoffs favor incumbents by hurting grass-roots candidates who need time to build support. Without IRV, that support must build in summertime, when vacations and outdoor activities make elections the last thing people care about.

So we all lose under the current system, because we drop good candidates before most of us know anything about them.

Incumbents prefer it this way. They have name recognition and fundraising advantages, so they usually survive primaries, but only one opponent will. Today incumbents pray for multiple opponents, because that splits up the anti-incumbent vote and bleeds the weaker candidates dry.

IRV also encourages positive campaigns. We have already seen in San Francisco - which just used IRV to elect its city council - that IRV produces positive, issue-oriented campaigns.

With IRV, candidates seek each voter's second and third rankings, too. So instead of "going negative" - and irritating the voters - candidates make joint appearances to woo voters. They say "Even if you will vote for her first, please consider me as your next choice."