The benefits of instant-runoff voting

By Martin Dyckman
Published February 13th 2005 in St Petersburg Times (FL)
There comes a time in a political campaign when the candidate realizes that there's no tomorrow. Mel Martinez met that moment by deciding he would rather be a U.S. senator than protect his reputation as a good guy.

He aired an ad accusing Bill McCollum, his more conservative rival, of co-sponsoring a bill "granting homosexuals special rights." It was a hate-crime bill that also applied to other vulnerable minorities, for which McCollum deserved praise, not blame. Notably, Martinez did not accuse him of "granting blacks special rights," as the demagogues of the 1950s would have.

Dirt works better than ever these days. The irony is that Martinez probably could have won without disgracing himself.

But try to imagine Martinez trashing McCollum if, at the same time, he needed to ask McCollum supporters for their second-choice votes.

Cleaner campaigning is the intangible bonus to the instant-runoff primary that Florida sorely needs to adopt.

The benefits are self-evident: November voters would choose among nominees who are more moderate than they can expect now. The nominees would more likely represent the majorities rather than the extremes of their parties. They would have had to run clean campaigns so as not to offend the supporters of other candidates from whom they might need second-choice votes.

"There's no question that the civility of campaigns might be dramatically altered by this idea," says Sen. Rod Smith, one of the Democrats running for governor. "I think the absence of a runoff has hurt the civility."

That benefit is accessible without the expensive, time-consuming, inconvenient and low-turnout traditional runoff which - listen up, you legislators - comes back to the ballot in the fall of 2006 as the law stands now.

The return of the runoff, as it was before the Legislature suspended it in 2002, would be bad news for the supervisors of elections, who have been lobbying for years to be rid of it. To hear them is to suspect at times that the best election, from their point of view, would be one without any contested races.

But to be fair about it, it is nearly impossible and getting even harder to shoehorn a separate runoff into the eight weeks between the primary and general election. The post-2000 legislation to make voting easier for the public has also made the ballots more complicated to prepare.

"All we're asking for is more time," says Pasco's Kurt Browning, who chairs the supervisors' legislative committee. "If they want a second primary, give us more time. But then you're moving your first primary into mid-July, which means qualifying in late spring."

There is no interest among legislators in July elections. The leadership position in both houses is to eliminate the runoff forever. Anyone who agrees that the instant runoff is the best alternative needs to be writing now to Senate President Tom Lee, House Speaker Allan Bense, and their district representative and senator.

Instant-runoff voting is not rocket science. It is common overseas and had a successful debut three months ago in San Francisco. Easy-to-read information, including a PowerPoint slide show by Vermont's secretary of state, is available on the Web site of the Center for Voting and Democracy:

The Legislature shelved the runoff three years ago ostensibly for the sake of the election supervisors but there was also some political intrigue afoot. The Republicans, having a strong incumbent governor, thought the absence of a runoff would produce a weaker Democratic nominee. They may have been right, though the opponent they got - Bill McBride - was not the one they and some of us in the press expected. Mea culpa.

There was also concern over the potential of some well-mobilized extremist group on the right or left to monopolize low-turnout legislative runoffs. But the risk is even greater in a multicandidate primary without a runoff.

The political motives this time are harder to figure with so many candidates suiting up in both parties. It is widely assumed here that those who seem to be trailing this time next year will be the ones who most want a runoff. Should those include Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings, Gov. Jeb Bush could help her by vetoing the legislation to permanently eliminate the runoff.

But that ought not to be the only choice. For the voters, instant-runoff voting is the best of all the possible scenarios. Your Legislature owes you the duty of giving it a fair hearing.