Plurality Voting Problematic for Columbia

By Brenden Cline
Published April 21st 2008 in The Columbia Spectator
In the aftermath of this year’s CCSC elections, parties’ ethnic and political doppelgangers will fade from campus consciousness until they are resurrected again next spring. Energy spent on campaigning and fliering will all but eclipse the student council’s output during the rest of the school year. Students, given a slew of cookie-cutter candidates, voiced their dissatisfaction by abstaining in tremendous numbers—numbers nearly as high as the 65 percent that didn’t vote in the 2007 elections. How then, can student council elections be restored to their role as an impetus for debate, a source of democratic pride, and a symbol of Columbians’ (generally) progressive beliefs?

The most feasible answer lies in “instant runoff voting,” the system that half of the Ivy League—Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, and Cornell—discovered years ago. Instant runoff elections aren’t nearly as complicated as they sound. The only change for voters is that instead of choosing a single candidate for a position, they rank the entire ballot of candidates in order of preference. When votes are tabulated, the first choice vote is the only vote that counts in the first round of voting, and if a candidate wins an absolute majority—more than 50 percent of votes cast—then he or she is declared the victor. Otherwise, the lowest-vote-garnering candidate is eliminated, his votes are instead redistributed to his voters’ second-choice candidates, and so on until a single winner is found.

The injustices of the simple plurality system employed by the CCSC Elections Board can also be felt by those who remember the defeat of the environmentally sensitive presidential candidate, Al Gore, because of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in 2000. The role of a third candidate in plurality elections nearly always becomes that of the “spoiler,” whose presence detracts from the frontrunner with whom he or she is most aligned. Furthermore, plurality elections encourage candidates to utilize negative campaigning to attack their primary adversary because elections are won as much by getting enough votes “against” their main rival as by getting votes in favor of their candidacy.

This clear deficit in the electoral system can be satisfied by ranking-style voting. In such a system, third-party candidates fare better as they don’t detract from their more popular counterpart, the candidate chosen from a final two-party runoff serves as a compromise between all competing interests, positive coalition-building campaigns increase, and, as a consequence of all these changes, voter turnout increases as well.

Adopting instant runoff voting in Columbia’s student elections would also improve elections by enlivening debate and improving representation. Such a system would encourage candidates to run on specific policies alone, increasing the visibility of election issues along with the likelihood that an amalgamated compromise platform would emerge. In elections with multiple candidates (traditionally CCSC At-Large), those candidates with the greatest appeal to the most voters are ensured victory, rather than the few who are able to eke out narrow majorities regardless of mass appeal. Finally, as hope for more substantive elections becomes reality, voter turnout will increase.

Besides benefitting directly from instant runoff voting’s strengths, Columbia could use its position as one of the world’s most prestigious universities to serve as a catalyst to encourage the adoption of instant runoff voting in political elections. The current list of peer—dare I say rival?—universities using instant runoff voting in some form is a who’s who of top universities, comprising 10 of the top 20 schools. As this year has shown, Columbia is a university that wants to pave the way for political debates—think Ahmadinejad—while staying abreast of rivals’ attention-worthy advancements, like increased financial aid. By introducing instant runoff voting, the CCSC Elections Board could effectively accomplish both. Columbia’s exceptional political science department and the University’s close ties to the local and metropolitan community would diffuse the impact, while its addition to the list of IRV-employing universities would tip the balance of Ivies and top-20 schools in favor of the system.

The CCSC Elections Board can and should amend its constitution to replace plurality voting with a system of preferential voting, like instant runoff. The technological infrastructure already exists to implement this change, and all that is required is a simple rule change and a campaign to spread awareness of the new system. While we may be unable to avoid student campaigns often led by enterprising rather than sincerely concerned peers, students can and should expect more of their primary democratic outlet than a spoils system in which the reward is a boosted resume. Instant runoff voting surely is not a panacea, but through its adoption, Columbia can strengthen its internal electoral process and serve as a vehicle for societal change.