In Our View - Let's Try IRV
Instant runoff voting, which eliminates primaries and assures that a winner receives a majority of votes, is gaining momentum in Washington state, and especially in Vancouver
Published March 28th 2005 in Vancouver Columbian

Instant runoff voting, which eliminates primaries and assures that a winner receives a majority of votes, is gaining momentum in Washington state, and especially in Vancouver.

    For the third straight year, the state House of Representatives has approved a bill that would allow Vancouver to try instant runoff voting as a pilot program in nonpartisan municipal elections. And, last week the Senate Government Operations and Elections Committee was told by Shane Hamlin, a lobbyist for the secretary of state's office, that the office would not oppose such a trial run in Vancouver, although the office is not an advocate of IRV.

    That green light from the secretary of state's office is traced to Vancouver voters' approval in 1999 of a measure that would allow IRV locally. More local support has come from Vancouver city lobbyist Mark Brown, who last week said at the committee hearing, "We would like to have that option."

    And that's why the Senate should follow the lead of the House and approve IRV for Vancouver on a trial basis. State Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, deserves most of the credit for promoting IRV. Other House members from this area who voted to allow IRV included one perceptive Republican, Rep. Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside, plus Democratic Reps. Bill Fromhold and Deb Wallace of Vancouver.

    Instant runoff voting allows voters to rank candidates in order. If the leading candidate receives less than 50 percent of the votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated and those people who voted for that last-place candidate will have their second-ranked choices counted. The process continues until one candidate receives a majority of the votes.

    IRV was used last fall in San Francisco, and exit polls showed wide acceptance among those who participated.

    It's important to know that House Bill 1447 mandates nothing. It simply allows Vancouver to pursue IRV as an option. City council would be allowed to consider it, hear from the public and local election and political figures and then decide.

    Critics claim that IRV is too complicated for voters, yet ranking choices is common in our everyday lives. We do it when we apply for a personalized license plate and when we rent movies, in both cases when our first choices might not be available.

    There's also the complaint that IRV allows those who voted for the last-place candidate an additional vote, thus violating the one-man, one-vote principle. That concern is invalid, because in the subsequent votes of IRV all voters' choices are retabulated.

    The greatest benefit of IRV is that it nullifies the need for primary elections, which cost about $10,000 each in Vancouver, while assuring a clear winner who claims a majority of votes.

    The IRV debate intensifies when it turns partisan. Democrats point out that if IRV had existed in 2000, Ralph Nader votes in Florida likely would have gone to Al Gore, who would have won that state and thus the presidential election. That, of course, angers Republicans, but they are reminded that in 2000 the Pat Buchanan votes in states where Bush narrowly lost New Mexico, Iowa, Wisconsin and Oregon likely would have gone to Bush, switching those states' electoral votes to him. In Washington state in 2000, most of the Libertarians' votes in the U.S. Senate race likely would have gone to Slade Gorton and he would be senator instead of Maria Cantwell.

    However, the frantic debate about partisan races is irrelevant in the decision that's before the state Senate. It is simply being asked to approve IRV as an option in Vancouver, and only in nonpartisan municipal elections.

    Let's give IRV a chance. If problems emerge as a plan unfolds, we can always reject the option. But so far the system appears solid and reliable, certainly quicker and more cost-efficient than the cumbersome system of primaries. The people of Vancouver want the option, and it should be granted to them by the Senate.