A fad or reform?
Published September 30th 2005 in Gainsville Sun
IRV: A political fad or a good government reform?

Instant Runoff Voting is getting a lot of attention these days, with citizen coalitions in Washington State, Massachusetts, Michigan and several other states pushing the idea.

And now, advocates locally are urging both the Alachua County Commission and the Gainesville City Commission to give it a try.

The instant runoff basically allows voters to rank candidates by preference; i.e. first choice, second choice, third choice and so on. If no candidate in a race gets a majority of votes on the first count, the "instant runoff" kicks in.

On the second count, the candidate who got the fewest number of first choice votes is eliminated and the next choice preferences of that candidate's prime voters are redistributed to the remaining candidates. Eventually, by the process of elimination and redistribution of next choice votes, a winner emerges.

Instant Runoff Voting has been suggested as an antidote to the Electoral College system that sometimes elects a president who actually got fewer votes than his opponent.

Advocates say its use could have kept Ross Perot from being the spoiler in the George H.W. Bush-Bill Clinton race, and prevented Ralph Nader from tilting the election to George W. Bush instead of Al Gore.

As St. Petersburg Times columnist Martin Dyckman put it recently, the IRV "would eliminate the spoiler potential...."

"If, for example, Nader is really the candidate you like most (or dislike least) your first choice could safely be cast with him, with your second choice vote awarded to the lesser of the other evils, to be counted only if neither of them has a majority of first-choice votes."

But don't expect to see the presidency decided by Instant Runoff Voting any time soon. It's a lot more difficult to amend the U.S. Constitution than a city or county charter. For the foreseeable future - if, indeed, the IRV has a future - it will probably be as a decider of local elections.

Indeed, it was San Francisco's use of the IRV last year that has attracted so much attention to the idea.

 In the City by the Bay, use of the instant runoff system made it possible to decide seven city council races - one of which had drawn 22 candidates - without the necessity of holding an expensive run-off election several weeks later and with all of the winners being able to legitimately claim a majority vote; a mandate if you will.

Moreover, exit polls conducted by San Francisco State University found that voters of all political persuasions generally preferred IRV over the more cumbersome run-off elections.

By eliminating the run-offs, San Francisco saved millions of dollars. And the chief drawback to the runoff is that substantially fewer voters bother to show up the second time around. Voter turnout has been known to dropoff by 50 percent or more in run-offs, which has its own distorting effect on outcomes.

Detractors, on the other hand, argue that IRV tends to confuse the voters and will only make it more difficult to elect independent or third-party candidates. There's no question that the instant runoff would require a fair amount of voter education. But given the way existing elections systems are rigged to favor Democrats and Republicans, it's difficult to argue that instant runoffs wouldn't be an improvement.

At first blush, the IRV looks to us more like a reform than a fad. But it's probably a good idea for other communities to join San Francisco in experimenting with it before trying to export the idea to state or national elections.

County Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut told The Sun this week she would rather see Gainesville than Alachua County test drive IRV. And Gainesville does seem the more appropriate laboratory. City commission elections are nonpartisan, unlike county races, so there should be less concern about the prospect of IRV hurting the election chances of third-party candidates.

And, as it happens, a citizens committee is looking at the city charter with an eye toward recommending changes to the way Gainesville residents elect their commissioners. We recommend that charter review group take a hard look at Instant Runoff Voting for its potential to both save money, shorten and simplify the process and elect candidates who truly represent the preference of the majority of voters.

Anything the charter review committee recommends would have to go on the ballot for voter approval before it can take effect. So ultimately, it would be up to Gainesville residents to decide whether or not they want to use Instant Runoff Voting to elect city commissioners. We think the idea is worthy enough to merit a city-wide debate.