There's a better way to pick a mayor

By Josh Krekeler
Published July 26th 2005 in Cincinnati Enquirer

The number of candidates running for mayor this year proves that the spirit of participatory democracy is thriving in Cincinnati. But it presents a problem for the more experienced candidates. If each of the major candidates wins as many votes in the primary election as their past records indicate they will, the two who advance to the general election could win with less than one-fourth of the vote each. A majority of voters would have voted for candidates who won't be on the general election ballot, and many of those voters will be dissatisfied with the remaining choices. With four strong candidates and several grass-roots challengers, this is more than a theoretical possibility.

Fortunately, there's a way to avoid this problem without sacrificing anyone's right to vote for his or her favorite candidate. Choice voting (also called instant runoff voting) selects a winner supported by a majority of voters from a field of multiple candidates in a single election. Voters rank the candidates on the ballot in order of preference - 1, 2, 3, etc. After all votes are cast, the candidate with the fewest No. 1 rankings is eliminated, and those votes are transferred to the candidates who are ranked second on the affected ballots. This continues until one candidate has a majority of the votes (50 percent plus one).

With choice voting, groups of voters who share similar views don't have to worry about splitting their support among multiple candidates. For example, voters who want to support a Democrat could rank the three Democratic candidates as their top three choices in any order. If any got eliminated, most of the transferred votes would benefit the other Democrats. Choice voting also solves the problem of spoilers - remember Ralph Nader and Ross Perot? - because a long-shot candidate's supporters can rank him or her first and a major candidate second. The vote transfer process ensures that those votes won't be "wasted."

Choice voting is used to select Heisman trophy winners and Oscar winners, and several college campuses use it for student government elections. In November, San Francisco elected its Board of Supervisors with choice voting. That election was noteworthy because the candidates ran more positive campaigns in an effort to win second-place rankings on ballots cast for their opponents.

The beauty of choice voting is that it uses the principle of majority rule to provide an accurate picture of voters' preferences. Instead of allowing the largest minority to prevail, it determines the majority's consensus opinion on which candidate would do the best job. Choice voting is a sound alternative to the unwieldy and undemocratic primary system that we currently use. The mayoral primary costs the city more than $200,000, and its only purpose is to narrow the field to two candidates for the general election. If we can save that kind of money, give the voters a full range of choices in November, and still elect a majority winner, citizens and officials alike should seriously consider modernizing our voting system.

Josh Krekeler of Pleasant Ridge is an organizer for Cincinnati Voter Choice, a coalition dedicated to improving the quality of representation for all citizens in city government.