'Instant runoff' voting debated
City commissioners decide to pass on the idea for now.

By Lisa Rab
Published March 10th 2005 in Sarasota Herald Tribune
The day after city leaders have learned they will have to spend $37,000 on a runoff election for the at-large City Commission race, they heard a pitch to eliminate runoffs altogether.

Advocates presented the commission with their version of what's called "instant runoff voting."

It's a ranking system that recalculates votes automatically if no candidate wins a majority of the votes in an election. Supporters say it saves money and increases voter participation.

But the debate over its benefits and flaws is anything but simple.

Following the advice of the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent, the commissioners decided they were not ready to start it here.

"My recommendation would be, let's wait and see," Dent told the commission. "I would not be comfortable taking on that responsibility."

Under the proposed system, everyone who casts a ballot ranks the candidates in order of preference.

If there is no majority winner among the first-choice candidates, the least-popular candidate is eliminated.

People who voted for that candidate have their second-choice votes counted, and those votes are added to the votes for the other candidates.

If there is still no majority winner, the process of elimination is repeated until one candidate gets a majority of the votes.

If the process had been in applied ot Tuesday's election, the 2.3 percent of voters who supported John Fulton could have hedged their bets by ranking someone they think is more likely to win as their second choice.

It "gives the voter more power," said Anthony Lorenzo, a member of the Coalition for Instant Runoff Voting.

He added that it also saves taxpayers and candidates money by eliminating the need for a second runoff election.

"I'm very much enthralled with this," said Commissioner Lou Anne Palmer, who is competing in next month's runoff. "I'd really like to see the state move on this."

But Vice Mayor Mary Anne Servian worried the ranking would be too complicated for voters to understand. She also was concerned that Sarasota would be a test site for the software needed to implement the system.

"I don't want to be a guinea pig," she said.

Dent said she could see the benefits of the system, particularly since
voter turnout for runoffs is traditionally low.

But she said it would be difficult to convince the state to certify the
instant-runoff software, which would have to be designed especially for

Without state permission, she would not administer an instant-runoff

The city began having runoff elections 10 years ago. The system requires City Commission candidates to win the support of a majority (50 percent plus one) of the voters.

In the at-large race for two open seats, each voter can vote for two people. But both candidates have to win support from a majority of the voters. If they don't, a runoff is required.

Since none of the seven candidates in Tuesday's race won a majority, a runoff will be held April 12.