Instant runoff bill goes to governor
Vancouver could be first to test a plan that would allow voters to rank preferences in nonpartisan, multicandidate races

By Foster Church
Published April 14th 2005 in The Oregonian
For state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, it is a moment to savor. Instant-runoff voting, an issue he has championed since the late '90s, has received the Legislature's approval.

The Senate, on a 38-9 vote Tuesday, passed Moeller's bill establishing a pilot project to test instant runoff. Because the measure passed the House last month, 63-34, the legislation now goes to Gov. Christine Gregoire.

She has not indicated whether she would support it, but if she does, Vancouver could be the first city in the state to test it.

"It's a great idea," Moeller, a former Vancouver city councilman, said Wednesday. "I think it offers a real opportunity for municipal governments to have an election that encourages voter participation, that is cheaper and that relies on people appealing to a broad base."

In instant-runoff voting, which has also been referred to as "ranked-choice voting," a voter ranks each candidate with a number. If nobody receives a majority in the first round, the last-place candidate's ballots are redistributed based on his or her supporters' second choice. Vote counters repeat the process until one candidate has at least 50 percent.

The bill sets up a five-year pilot project to be conducted by the Secretary of State's Office. It will be used as a local option for nonpartisan offices in cities that qualify. Qualifying cities must have populations greater than 140,000 but less than 200,000 and must approve a city charter amendment authorizing the city council to use the voting method for the election of city officers.

Vancouver, according to Moeller, is the only city in the state that would now qualify for such an election.

That is partly because of his efforts. In 1999, Moeller began encouraging members of the Vancouver City Council to place a City Charter amendment on the ballot that would allow instant-runoff voting.

"I talked three other council members into going along with me," he recalled. "No one thought it would pass as a charter amendment. It was surprising to them that it did."

It was only after voters passed the measure that the city learned state law wouldn't allow it.

When Moeller was elected to the Legislature in 2002, establishing instant-runoff voting was high on his legislative priority list.

"When I got here, I really started to push it," Moeller said. "I talked with the secretary of state and the county auditors, and we worked out all the kinks. I got it to a place where I got the majority support of my caucus to move it through, and then to the Senate."

The only city in the United States that now allows instant-runoff voting is San Francisco, according to Moeller, though he said cities in many other countries use it.

Moeller explained that the Vancouver City Council would have to approve an instant-runoff election, and he could not predict whether the council would. The earliest such an election could take place, he said, would be in 2007.

"Now they have the opportunity, and they have the charter amendment," he said, noting that in Washington, "Vancouver is poised to be the first city to participate in it."

Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey, who oversees county elections, said he is "not necessarily an opponent" of instant-runoff voting, but that he thinks the current system has worked well.

Instant-runoff voting, he said, could be confusing to people.

"A plus to the system we currently use is its simplicity," he said. "We can put the ballots in separate piles, and the one that is highest wins."