Audition a New Form of Runoff

By Jac Wilder VerSteeg
Published May 5th 2005 in Palm Beach Post

Eliminating runoff elections in Florida is good news for the Scott Savols of politics.

Scott — nobody calls him Mr. Savol — is the American Idol contestant who confounded viewers by hanging on week after week while more talented and charismatic contestants were voted off the show. If Scott were two dwarfs, he'd be Grumpy and Pitchy.

I hope viewers sent Scott home Wednesday night. (The announcement came after my deadline). OK, maybe Anthony Federov was even worse in Tuesday night's show, but he's more likeable. If there's no justice, those two stayed and Vonzell Solomon got the boot.

But back to the main point: How in the world did Scott even make it into the top five? Assuming there was no affair with Paula Abdul, the simple answer is that worthy candidates fragmented the sane vote while the nuts clumped around Scott. There's even a Web site — — that encourages people to keep Scott on the show to embarrass Fox (As if!).

Political primaries can have similarly unsatisfying results when there is no runoff. Take, for example, a possible scenario in next year's Republican primary for governor if Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings (think of her as Carrie Underwood), Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher (Bo Bice) and Attorney General Charlie Crist (Scott Savol) vie for the nomination. That three-way matchup would include two competent moderates and one shallow pol who panders to the right; a pet proposal when he served in the Legislature earned him the nickname Chain Gang Charlie. If Ms. Jennings got 31 percent, Mr. Gallagher got 29 percent and Mr. Crist got 40 percent, moderate voters might rally to give Ms. Jennings a comfortable runoff victory. But if there is no runoff, Mr. Crist would win, even though he did not get a majority of votes and most voters preferred a moderate.

I'm not saying that Mr. Crist is exactly like Scott Savol. For one thing, he is much more personable. And though I can't say for sure, it wouldn't surprise me if Mr. Crist is a better singer, too. That doesn't change the fact that, like Scott, he is out of his depth but persistently prevails over more-qualified people.

The House and Senate have passed legislation banning runoff primaries, and Gov. Bush is likely to sign it into law. I think the GOP-dominated Legislature did away with runoffs precisely to hamper moderates and improve the prospects of candidates farther along the right end of the spectrum. Plus, they remember that, historically, runoffs produced Reubin Askew, Lawton Chiles and Bob Graham, three of Florida's most successful Democrats.

The practical reasons offered as cover for ending runoff elections are: 1) Runoffs require short turnarounds and are expensive; 2) Turnout is so low that a majority in the runoff primary can be less than a plurality in the first primary. But if those were the crucial reasons, elections officials and lawmakers would embrace the obvious solution known as the "instant runoff." There are various ways of doing it, but the common element is that, rather than give a single vote to a single candidate, voters rank candidates in order of preference. Because it's all done at the initial election, cost and turnout issues vanish.

To see how an instant runoff might work, think about Constantine Maroulis' shocking ouster last week. For simplicity, consider just four candidates and pretend that only 20 votes were cast. In this make-believe setup, Carrie Underwood would get eight votes, Bo Bice seven, Scott Savol three and Constantine a pitiful two. With no runoff, it's goodbye Constantine.

But wait. Scott might have received more No. 1 votes, but Constantine clearly is more popular and talented. Why should Constantine go while Scott stays? So imagine that in addition to a first choice, voters could pick a runner-up choice. Assign one point to a first-place ranking and one-half point to a second-place ranking. Now make the perfectly reasonable assumption that Bo, Carrie and Constantine get six second-place votes each, and Scott gets the remaining two. Constantine's total rises to five, which beats Scott's four, and Scott goes home rather than Constantine.

Instant runoffs would give America a better Idol. In the meantime, I'm starting