Ohio Politics: There Is Another Way: Instant Runoff Voting Could Help Bridge the Divide

By Greg M. Schwartz
Published April 25th 2006 in The Cleveland Free Times

When Plain Dealer opinion editor Brent Larkin visited Kent State last week to speak about Ohio politics, he was introduced by provost Paul Gaston as a "newspaperman's newspaperman" who "represents an endangered species as a journalist," in that he reports on issues as he sees them without worrying about whose feathers might get ruffled. And Larkin gave that impression initially when he derided all three of the most well-known contenders in Ohio's upcoming gubernatorial election.

Larkin described Ken Blackwell as "scarily to the right" of the Republican mainstream, and slammed his primary opponent Jim Petro for having "crawled into bed with political sleazebags." He also put down Democratic frontrunner Ted Strickland as a "tool of organized labor" and someone who many view as a 20th-century politician at a time when we need 21st-century leadership.

Larkin implied that neither of the two major parties are fielding worthy candidates. Yet rather than discuss third-party and outsider candidates, he went on to talk about Ohio's economic and educational decline under Republican leadership. He said only 14 percent of Clevelanders and 21 percent of Ohioans have a college education, as compared to 45 percent of those in San Francisco. Larkin's basic conclusion was that Ohio was paying the price for years of "timid" Republican leadership and that we are in danger of continuing to bleed jobs and population until we become a second-rate state.

As a graduate journalism student who used to live in San Francisco, I asked Larkin why he didn't mention Green Party gubernatorial candidate Bob Fitrakis. Larkin noted that he hadn't mentioned Democrat Bryan Flannery either, and explained that he was focusing on candidates who had a chance to win. I countered that Larkin's reference of San Francisco's well-educated populace was interesting in light of how The City by the Bay implemented instant runoff voting in city elections in 2005 to improve the democratic process.

IRV is a system that lets voters rank their preferences. For example, you can rank a Green first and a Democrat second. If no candidate wins a majority in the first tally, all but the top two vote-getters are eliminated and everyone else's second choice is counted until a majority is reached. This way, progressives don't have to worry that voting Green will waste their vote and wind up helping the Republican candidate, as Ralph Nader supporters supposedly did in the 2000 presidential election. Likewise, conservatives who favored Ross Perot in 1992 could have had George H.W. Bush as their second choice. In this way, a true majority consensus is revealed.

I asked Larkin if the IRV method might be what we need here in Ohio and America in general — a system in which we'd have more choices than simply the lesser of two evils. Larkin responded by saying that he had never heard of such a system, and that it would "never fly" in Ohio.

Most Ohioans can be excused for knowing nothing about IRV, due to lack of media coverage about it. But it was rather dumbfounding to hear an expert in political journalism say that he had never heard of it. IRV is used in a number of European countries, as well as San Francisco and Burlington, Vermont. It is now being considered in other communities around the U.S. Larkin's answer was a true moment of cognitive dissonance, because he had until then demonstrated a keen grasp of Ohio politics. Yet at the same time, his ignorance of IRV suggested that he is a 20th-century journalist at a time when Ohio desperately needs 21st-century journalism.

One could argue that this anecdote illustrates exactly how the mainstream media's (MSM) paradigm of political journalism is broken. Most MSM outlets follow a horse-race agenda that is set by the two major parties. They do little of their own research into ways that the system might be improved, as if we're living in Utopia here. It's for this reason that independent news sites and blogs are rapidly surpassing the mainstream media for content that delivers any meaningful discussion about improving the state of the planet.

The question of IRV came up again on Friday afternoon when Congressman Sherrod Brown, candidate for U.S. Senate, held a meet-and-greet at Kent State sponsored by the College Democrats. Brown began by making note of Ohio's continuing bellwether status for national politics.

"Washington Post columnist George Will said the Senate race in Ohio will be the most watched race in the country," said Brown.

Brown later asked all the students present to find five others who were undecided or unregistered for the 2006 elections and educate them about the issues. During the Q&A, I posed the IRV question, asking if he would support IRV in national elections. Unlike Larkin, he'd at least heard of IRV. But he sidestepped the question and spoke of being vigilant about electronic voting vulnerabilities and other electoral improprieties.

To learn more about the voting method that too many journalists and politicians can't be bothered with, visit instantrunoff.org [1] and fairvote.org/irv/. [2]

Greg M. Schwartz is a graduate student in Kent State's Department of Journalism and Mass Communication and a freelance writer.