Is Instant Runoff Voting Feasible?
Published October 12th 2005 in The Ledger

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 local governments in Florida to give it a try. It's too late for any city elections in Polk this year, but it could happen two years from now.

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. BushBill Clinton race in 1992, and prevented Ralph Nader from tilting the 2000 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. 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 drop off 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 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.

Any takers among Polk's municipalities?