Let's take city elections out of hands of very few
Instant runoff plan would counter low voter turnout

By Mark P. Jones
Published February 12th 2006 in Houston Chronicle
Let's take city elections out of hands of very few
Instant runoff plan would counter low voter turnout

Although Houston's elected officials represent all Houstonians, the actual election of many of these officials is decided by a mere handful of city voters.

For instance, on Dec. 10 in the race for the at-large position 2 seat on Houston City Council between Jay Aiyer and Sue Lovell, only 4 percent of the city's registered voters cast a ballot, down from 20 percent on Nov. 8.

Lovell won the December runoff election with a number of votes (18,428) that was less than half of what both she (45,801) and Aiyer (37,188) had received in November.

Turnout also declined precipitously in the two districts where runoffs were held, dropping from 14 percent to 5 percent and from 25 percent to 9 percent in the City Council District B and C elections, respectively. In District B, Jarvis Johnson won on December 10 with 3,264 votes — 2,198 votes fewer than opponent Felicia Galloway-Hall had received on Nov. 8.

Whether one favored Aiyer or Lovell, or Galloway-Hall or Johnson, is not germane. Everyone should be uncomfortable with a system under which so few people determine who represents 2 million Houstonians.

Low voter turnout plagues most U.S. cities. However, the Houston City Charter's requirement that a runoff election be held if no candidate receives an absolute majority of the valid vote in the first round needlessly exacerbates this low-voter-turnout problem.

Runoff elections normally attract fewer voters than first-round contests, primarily because fewer races are on the ballot. Over the past 10 years one-third of the City Council members were elected in a runoff. In three of the past five elections the mayor was elected in a runoff.

Fortunately, there's a solution to the problems created by the current runoff requirement that provides all the benefits of the runoff system, such as avoiding the election of candidates who lack the majority support mandated by Texas law, but none of the negative costs.

The solution is adopting instant runoff voting, known as IRV, a majority voting system in which only one election is held. Instead of voting for a single candidate per office, voters rank-order the candidates, or a subset of the candidates, for each office from most to least preferred.

If no candidate garners an absolute majority of the first preferences, the candidate who received the least amount of first preferences is eliminated, and their votes are reallocated among the remaining candidates based on the second preference listed by voters for whom they were the first preference. This process repeats until a single candidate has captured an absolute majority of the valid vote.

IRV is used worldwide to elect officials such as the president of Ireland, the mayor of London and the entire Australian House of Representatives.

In the United States, IRV has been adopted by several cities, including San Francisco, a city that previously employed a runoff system identical to Houston's.

San Francisco's experience with IRV has been very positive. Problems of low turnout in runoff elections were eliminated, and the approximately $2 million spent every other year on runoff elections now funds vital city services.

The Dec. 10 runoff elections cost the city of Houston an estimated $1.2 million — funds that could have been better spent elsewhere.

Houston's mayor and City Council members should promote the adoption of IRV by first placing a proposition to amend the City Charter on the ballot, and then by actively campaigning for its passage.

By reforming the charter to adopt IRV, voter participation will be enhanced, Houston's elected officials will have greater legitimacy, and Houston's taxpayers will save money.

It's a win-win-win reform.

Jones is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Rice University. He has served as a consultant on electoral-system reform for organizations such as the United Nations, U.S. Department of State, and Inter-American Development Bank.