The Problem IRV Solves
At present in Vermont it is not uncommon for a candidate to be elected with less than a majority of votes cast. Under current law, It is possible for a candidate preferred by the majority of voters to be defeated by a candidate strongly opposed by a majority of the voters. The arrival of campaign finance reform, including public financing beginning in the year 2000, may exacerbate this problem by allowing a larger number of credible candidates. Especially when there is no incumbent, it is likely many races will have split votes with no majority winner.
Under Vermont law, most races can be won with a plurality of under 50% of the vote, while some races, by our constitution, are thrown to the General Assembly to choose from among the top three vote-getters. This has already happened 69 times in Vermont history including the recent Lieutenant Governor contest. Both scenarios are less democratic than we might like or need to accept. Split votes, whether on the left or the right, can result in undemocratic or questionable outcomes. For instance, the election of Reform Party candidate, Jesse "the Body" Ventura, as Governor of Minnesota with just 37% of the vote, leaves one wondering if that reflects the majority will of the voters.
In Vermont, in the case of no majority for the offices of Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Treasurer, the decision is taken out of the voters hands altogether and given to legislators. If there is no Governor-elect in November, there is no budget or administration being prepared, and the factors considered by legislators may not always reflect the choice that the voters would have made. In January, when the General Assembly convenes, some legislators will vote for the top statewide vote-getter, some will vote as their district voted (although their district may also have been divided with no majority winner), some will vote based on secret deals, and some will vote according to party. In any event, democracy and the principle of majority rule are diminished.
In Alaska, with a solid Republican majority in the legislature, Governor Knowles, a Democrat, was elected with just 41% of the vote because a strong Ross Perot-style independent party was in the race. In a recent election for Congress from New Mexico, Democrat Eric Serna got 39.8%, Green Party candidate Carol Miller got 16.8% and Republican Bill Redmond got 42.7% and won the election. In Alaska, Republicans have made IRV a priority, and in New Mexico, the Democrats have. But, regardless of our possible happiness with particular outcomes, we all should be interested. Election results should reflect the will of the voters.
A solution some states have adopted, particularly in the South, is to hold runoff elections. Two-election runoffs, however, have many problems. Runoffs extend the campaign season and cost money for both the taxpayers who fund the election and the candidates who must renew campaign fund-raising. Runoffs often have a drop-off in turnout that may yield an unrepresentative result, with the "winner" receiving fewer votes than the loser had gotten in the original election. In Vermont, there is also a constitutional obstacle to using a two-election runoff.
Vermonts election laws are ill-equipped to deal with more than two serious candidates in a race. With public financing offering the prospect of increased voter choice, a dramatic splintering of votes could not only cause the election of a highly unpopular candidate, it could further exacerbate the cynicism of an already cynical public.