Ballot-Box Blues?
Elect to try a new voting system

By Leslie Hunt
Published December 16th 2005 in Student Leader

Low turnout at the polls plagues many Student Government elections. But while SGs try to eliminate student apathy, they might be ignoring another solution. There could be a voting system out there that’s a better fit for your SG—one that results in lower costs, less stress, and more warm bodies at your precincts. Here are some of the most common systems used for SG elections.

Single-Member District Plurality System (a.k.a. First Past the Post or FPTP, Winner-takes-all): Each voter casts a single vote for one candidate, and the person who has the most votes wins. Sometimes, candidates must garner the majority vote (more than half the votes cast).

FPTP systems are simple to use and understand. This method works well with a small number of candidates for single-seat positions. However, parties carefully select the most broadly acceptable candidate to represent them, making it less likely for ethnic and racial minorities to win the candidacy.

The Associated Students of the University of Washington have been satisfied with their FPTP system but switched from paper ballots to online voting in 2002. Since then, voter turnout has been on the rise, increasing up to a current level of 15 percent. “Every year, the turnout increases depending on the number of candidates that are running,” says Elections Administration Committee Chair Ryan Mattson.

Two-Round Runoff System (a.k.a. TRS): Like FPTP systems, voters cast one vote for one candidate. However, if no single candidate secures the majority vote, then a runoff determines the winner between the top two candidates until one person wins the majority. This allows voters to have a second choice, should they change their mind or their favorite candidates lose before the runoff.

Because TRS uses a runoff, cost and time commitment are greater than with other methods. TRS also places an additional burden on the voter, sometimes resulting in lower turnout for the second round.
Elizabeth Palasky, Board of Governors executive secretary at Saint Mary’s College in Indiana, recalls a relatively blemish-free experience with TRS. “We haven’t had problems with this voting method, though I know that voter turnout still isn’t where we want it to be,” she says. Despite their ambitious goals for future elections, class elections already churn out a 35 percent voter turnout, while school-wide elections churn out 50 percent. Saint Mary’s also uses online voting, which appears to dilute the extra expense and tedium of ballot counting that comes with TRS.

Instant-Runoff Voting (a.k.a. IRV, Alternative Vote, Preferential Vote): Voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no one wins the majority vote, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated. A voter who supported the losing candidate doesn’t waste his vote—that vote then transfers to his second-choice candidate. The process repeats until one person wins the majority.

With IRV, students are less concerned about “wasting” their votes and are more likely to vote for third-party candidates. The need for a second runoff is eliminated as well, saving time and money for candidates, as well as another trip to the polls for students. However, although third-party candidates may garner more votes with IRV, they aren't really more likely to win. After third-party candidates are eliminated, votes often are still transferred to the major parties.

IRV made its debut earlier this year at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. “We had five people running for student body president this year, and I’m glad that someone won with 50 percent of the vote instead of just 20.1 percent, which is what could’ve happened,” says David Hankins, Student Assembly elections planning and advisory committee chair. With second and third choices available through IRV, students can eventually elect a winner that most of them find appealing.

IRV also reduces negative campaigning, according to Hankins. “IRV rewards candidates who campaign positively, since they’re also trying to get second- and third-choice votes from supporters of the other candidates. In First Past the Post, you can run a kind of ‘scorched earth’ campaign against everyone else and win, but IRV encourages more discussion of ideas and plans.”

Single Transferable Vote (a.k.a. STV, Hare-Clark Method, Choice Vote): STV is the multi-district (or multiple seat) version of IRV. Like IRV, voters rank candidates in order of preference on the ballot. Unlike IRV, STV uses the formula:
         Quota = _________ + 1
                             seats + 1
The surplus votes of elected candidates (i.e., those votes above the quota) are redistributed according to the second preferences on the ballot papers until all the seats fill up.
“Choice voting is the most effective way to elect a representative body of several winners,” says Chris Jerdonek, cofounder of Davis Citizens for Representation at the University of California—Davis, where students use STV to elect senators. It also increases both voter turnout and the number and diversity of candidates, Jerdonek says. “Since choice voting guarantees representation, there's a real incentive for students to participate.”
In many societies, STV is considered a sophisticated voting system that’s hard to understand and difficult to count. Going online may help. “Once ranked-choice voting is set up, it's easy to run,” Jerdonek says. “It's a little more work to set up in the beginning than plurality voting, but in the end it really pays off. It's an investment in democracy.”
When choosing a new voting system, an SG should conduct additional research to determine the best method to fit its budget and unique situation. Also, it’s essential to educate the student body about any changes. Distribute flyers or pamphlets explaining the system, write an article for your school newspaper, hold information sessions, and conduct a mock election before trying the real thing.

Ultimately, having the right voting system in place could eliminate some of those election-time woes.