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The Political Standard

Hereís A Way To Vote for Every Candidate on the BallotÖ
May 2002

This March signaled the arrival of a simple but powerful political reform. San Francisco adopted instant runoff voting for its major offices, and more than 50 Vermont town meetings strongly endorsed implementing it for statewide elections.

Used to elect Irelandís president, Londonís mayor and Australiaís parliament, instant runoff voting (IRV) generates a majority winner in a single round of voting. Reformers argue its value for three categories of elections.

The most obvious use is to replace traditional two-round ìdelayedî runoffs. San Francisco currently holds runoffs if no candidate wins at least 50 percent of the vote. IRV will save city taxpayers about $2 million in annual election administration costs, avoid low-turnout runoff elections, reduce candidatesí reliance on campaign contributors able to give fast cash, and encourage candidates to build coalitions instead of tearing down opponents. Runoffs are used in most major mayoral elections, in most southern states and in federal primaries.

IRV also makes sense for non-partisan and primary elections where candidates can win with less than a majority of the vote (a plurality). When facing several opponents, some candidates win by appealing to a narrow band of core supporters rather than forming majority coalitions. This leads to unrepresentative results, with a particularly pronounced effect in the many legislative districts created to be safe for one party. Once nominated by the majority party, a candidate is nearly immune from possible defeat for years. IRV would ensure more winners fairly represent at least the majority in their constituency.

Alaska voters this August will address the third category of elections: IRV for partisan general elections, which would protect majority rule while permitting people to vote for third-party candidates without fear of wasting their vote. Under IRV, Ralph Nader might have doubled his 2.7 percent share of the 2000 presidential vote. At the same time, he would not have spoiled Al Goreís election because more of his supporters preferred Gore to George W. Bush in states such as Florida and New Hampshire that Bush won narrowly. IRV also likely would have boosted Washington Republican Slade Gorton over Maria Cantwell in a key U.S. Senate race.

We believe third party and independent candidates contribute valuable ideas and political energy to our elections. Freed by IRV from the spoiler tag, they could more easily participate in debates and generate excitement among supporters. Major party candidates would have to sustain and build their support through positive action more than negative attacks. And the experience of the great majority of established democracies with multiple parties suggests that increasing votersí range of choice rarely brings instability.

Some would rather suppress third parties, but they have become an inescapable reality of American politics. Since 1988, no presidential candidate has won a majority of the popular vote, and most states awarded their electoral votes to candidates who did not win a majority in that state.

IRV is a means to adapt winner-take-all elections to a multi-party reality. It does so more effectively than plurality rules, which are anti-democratic when they thwart a majority of voters.

This year's French presidential election underscores how IRV also is better for general elections than runoffs that reduce the field to two after the first count. Extremist Jean Marie Le Pen only gained the runoff with 17 percent of the vote ó barely more than his share in past elections ó because the center-left split its 40 percent-plus pool of votes among several candidates. By reducing the field gradually, the center-left vote would have coalesced behind prime minister Lionel Jospin, putting him well ahead of Le Pen and within striking range of President Jacques Chirac.

When IRV is implemented, jurisdictions must devote resources to voter education and ballot design, informing voters that everyone only has one vote in each round of counting and that ranking a lower-choice candidate will never affect the chances of oneís top-ranked candidates. IRVís track record indicates that voters with proper information will adapt well to ranking candidates; in Ireland, for example, a far lower share of its IRV ballots are invalid than in the American presidential election. Certainly local and state governments should require new voting equipment to support IRV.

Rob Richie is the executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. Steven Hill is the Centerís western regional director, and recently managed the San Francisco campaign for instant runoff voting.

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