Instant runoffs instantly persuasive

By Mark Lane
Published September 30th 2005 in Daytona Beach News-Journal
Gainesville is the state's premier college town and Alachua is the state's college county. So what better place for an election lab? And what state needs one more than Florida?

Alachua County and the city of Gainesville are revising their charters. One of the ideas being put forward is instant runoffs in local elections. Both governments appear to be taking it seriously.

In an instant-runoff system, voters not only vote their first choice, they check off their second and third choices, too. Sometimes more.

It works like this: If there's a three-person race and nobody gets a majority, the third-place candidate is eliminated. Then, instead of holding a separate run-off election, the second-choice votes of people who voted for the eliminated candidate are tabulated and given to the remaining candidates. If there are more than three candidates, more candidates are eliminated and more choices apportioned.

This system has been used for years in Australia and Ireland but only recently tried in the United States. Last year it was used in San Francisco city elections and at the Utah Republican state convention. In both cases, the reviews were good.

Florida's election system has been in flux since the legendary 2000 election. We have gone back and forth over how to hold party primaries. All this makes us an excellent candidate for trying a wholly new system. This is one state where nobody can make the argument, "if ain't broke, don't fix it."

And not just Florida in general. Given Volusia County's history of close and disputed elections, we are probably more open to experimentation than places with placid political pasts.

The timing's right, too. For like Alachua, Volusia County has a Charter Review Commission in place. It's supposed to recommend county charter changes that can be voted on next year.

I'm hoping Volusia's charter reviewers look into this. And not just for good-government, laboratory-of-democracy reasons. Run-offs in elections with a lot of candidates are expensive, labor intensive and few voters even show up.

When facing up to the expense and trouble of primaries, the state of Florida took the easy way out by switching to winner-take-all primaries. Whoever gets the most votes wins. Even if it's with 30 percent of the vote in a four-person race.

This is the way we elect people in legislative and statewide races. And like everything else in legislative and statewide races, it tends to work to the advantage of incumbents.

When you combine winner-take-all primaries with closed primaries (that is, Democrat-only and Republican-only primaries), the winner can be the person who got less than a majority of the votes within a group of voters who aren't in the majority. A minority within a minority.

The strongest argument against instant runoffs is that they would confuse voters.

Before 2000, I would have been insulted by the argument that we're not smart enough to do this. But I watched the recount and was astounded at the number of voters who were unable to darken a bubble to show who they wanted to vote for.

But that exercise also proved it's hard to predict what will confuse people. And in any case, people will never get unconfused unless they get a chance to see this in action.

Like early voting, this is worth trying to see if it works. If not in Alachua County or Gainesville, then why not here? It's not like we're the kind of place that's afraid of do things differently than every place else.