IRV Supporters Say Partisanship Sunk Alaska Ballot Measure

By Aron Goetzl
Published August 29th 2002 in
Supporters of instant runoff voting blamed partisan politics for this week's defeat of Ballot Measure 1 in Alaska at an American Political Science Association panel discussion here Wednesday.

"[The campaign] had this partisan edge to it," said Rob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a group that advocates instant runoff voting (IRV). "Certainly Democrats were more fearful of it than Republicans were eager for it. The Democrats were able to say, 'This isn't good for us.' There wasn't a corresponding, 'This is really great for us' from the Republicans."

The initiative, which would have brought IRV to all Alaskan elections except the race for governor, failed 64 to 36 percent Tuesday. An IRV system allows voters to rank candidates by preference and eliminates the need for separate runoff elections. Alaska would have become the first state to adopt the process, though San Francisco voters approve an IRV proposal last March.

Supporters of IRV had been confident in the days leading up to this week's primary that they could pull off their biggest victory yet in their nationwide campaign. Richie said that a poll conducted a few weeks before the election had shown the measure ahead in the state.

"But we knew the support was soft," he said. "At the end of the day, the undecideds in this race really broke heavily to 'No' on the measure."

The campaign created some unlikely allies and foes in the state. Republicans, who have failed to capture the governor's mansion for more than two decades despite being the clear majority party, were the primary supporters of Alaska's IRV effort.

"This was sparked by activists in the Republican Party who felt that they were losing votes to other conservative parties," Richie said. Specifically, a Democrat won the 1994 gubernatorial race with only 41 percent when two conservative candidates split the remaining balance of the vote.

The state's minor parties also supported the IRV initiative. But state Democrats put up strong opposition, along with the League of Women Voters and some newspaper editorial boards. Conversely, in San Francisco, Democrats led the successful campaign for IRV last March and in Vermont, the League has supported a town-level effort. Newspapers around the country have generally been supportive of IRV.

The face-off between Republicans and Democrats particularly hindered support, one IRV proponent said yesterday.

"One political party put it forward to try to solve its own political problems," said Malcolm Mackerras, professor at The University of New South Wales. "Once you do that, you're going to lose."

Added Richie, "[Democrats] saw the GOP was for it and figured they should be against it."

The setback leaves San Francisco and Vermont as the primary places to watch for IRV developments in the near future.

"[IRV in Alaska] would have been a huge advance," Richie said. "But there weren't many states lining up to follow it."

Mickey Edwards, a former U.S. Representative from Oklahoma and a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, issued a message of caution to supporters of IRV.

Edwards, a proponent of runoff elections, said IRV eliminates the valuable head-to-head competition that can develop between two candidates that advance to a separate runoff.

"I think it is valuable to remember that there are downsides to instant runoffs," he said.

But he added, "I think instant runoff is better than no runoff."