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Anchorage Daily News

Long, Hard Look Needed On . . . Instant runoffs
April 24, 2002

Alaska voters will face a question on the Aug. 27 primary ballot that deserves a lot more discussion than it has received so far: whether to switch to instant runoff voting.

The system would apply to balloting for federal and state office -- except governor and lieutenant governor. If approved, voters in future elections would choose up to five candidates in each race and indicate the order in which they preferred them (first, second, third, etc.)

To win an election right off the bat, the candidate would have to get more than half the votes cast. But when a candidate fails to get half on the first count, the challenger in last place would be eliminated and all second choices on his or her ballots would then be counted and added to the remaining candidates' totals.

That recounting process would continue until one candidate had enough votes to take the election. The initiative does not apply to the race for governor because the Alaska Constitution specifies that the winner in that race is the one who garners the most votes, not necessarily a majority. Since the governor and lieutenant governor run as a team, both positions are excluded from the proposed process.

The Alaska initiative also would allow instant runoff voting as a local option, so it could be adopted for Assembly and other city elections.

Instant runoff is relatively untried, though a few cities and states are taking tentative steps in that direction. It has been adopted by San Francisco and most communities in Vermont. And the Republican Party in Utah is using the system at its May 11 convention.

Alaska would be the first state to adopt it. If successful, the system could save money on separate runoff elections. But its most fervent backers are those who want to alter the impact of third-party candidates by reducing their role as spoilers.

Ken Jacobus, a prominent Republican, is one of the initiative's backers. His cites occasions when Democrats have won Alaska elections by default because the conservative vote was split. This year, for instance, some GOP voters may opt for the Republican Moderate Party and the Alaskan Independence Party, which also will be on the ballot.

Jim Sykes of the Alaska Green Party also likes the proposed system. So do Ralph Nader and many other third-party leaders in the country. They want voters to be able to choose long-shot candidates without feeling their votes are wasted.

To our thinking such a change deserves a long, hard look beginning well before primary day. Instant runoff voting could eliminate some old problems -- but in the process could create new and perhaps worse ones.

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