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Anchorage Daily News

Initiative creates odd allies
By Gabriel Spitzer
July 22, 2002

An unusual coalition has sprung from the instant runoff voting initiative on the Aug. 27 primary ballot.

Take Jim Sykes, for example, the Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate. On a recent trip to the Delaney Park Strip in downtown Anchorage, an acquaintance approached him.

"She simply said: 'Interesting company you're keeping these days. Ken Jacobus?' " Sykes recalled.

Jacobus, a conservative Republican attorney, is perhaps the last person Sykes could have imagined working with -- until now. All four of Alaska's recognized minor parties have joined the Alaska Republican Party in supporting Ballot Measure 1, which would institute preferential or instant runoff voting for all state and federal races, except governor and lieutenant governor.

It would work like this:

Instead of choosing one candidate in each race, voters would rank the candidates in order of preference. If no candidate had a majority of first-choice votes after the ballots were counted, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes would be dropped.

Voters who picked the eliminated candidate would then have their votes shifted to their second choice. The votes would then be retabulated. The process would be repeated until one candidate got a majority of votes.

Preferential voting is used in Ireland and Australia, among other countries. Cambridge, Mass., has used a close cousin of instant runoff voting since 1995, and San Francisco recently approved it for local elections. No state currently uses instant runoff.

Backers say it would restore majority rule, eliminate costly runoff elections and generate more voter interest in the process.

Minor parties like it because they think it would eliminate the "spoiler" problem, when people fear that voting for a minor-party candidate could help their least favorite candidate get elected.

"You're going to be seeing a shocker in the next election," predicted Mark Chryson, chairman of the Alaskan Independence Party and a sponsor of the initiative. "You're going to actually see how much support the AIP does have when people know they can rate their first choice."

Opponents, including the Democratic Party and the League of Women Voters of Alaska, argue that instant runoff voting is expensive, complicated and unnecessary.

"I'm deeply troubled by this," said Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, whose office oversees the state Division of Elections.

"If the system isn't broken -- and as a matter of fact, if the system is running smoothly, professionally and with a big degree of confidence -- why do we want to change it?"

In state and federal elections, the candidate with the most votes wins, majority or not.

"Let's say someone wins by 40 percent," Ulmer said. "That's how America generally does business. I'm not troubled by that. I'm more troubled by somebody getting elected by putting percentages together."

The initiative would allow municipalities to opt into the instant runoff voting process, saving them time and money, backers say.

Runoff elections in Anchorage cost about $100,000 apiece, according to the municipal clerk's office. In the six runoffs since 1990, voter turnout has declined steadily from a high of 50.9 percent in 1990 to just 7.2 percent in 2002.

Diebold Election Systems, which produces Alaska's Accuvote ballot machines, said the state's hardware can handle the ranked ballots but would require new computer chips. Replacing them would cost $216,800.

However, when the state Legislature briefly considered instant runoff voting in 1999, it put the cost at about $1.9 million, including the expenses of new ballots, voter education and poll worker training. The figure also includes more than $1 million to buy voting machines for the precincts that still hand-count ballots.

Opponents say this is too expensive, but they also contend that instant runoff voting has deeper problems.

"Our main concern is that preferential voting allows some voters to cast a vote for more than one candidate, and it appears to compromise the principle of one person, one vote," said Cheryl Jebe, president of the League of Women Voters of Alaska.

Only voters whose first-choice candidate is eliminated have their ballots counted again, she said.

Critics say this gives larger voice to supporters of the least popular candidates.

But instant runoff voting would be no different in this respect from regular runoffs, said Steven Hill, western regional director of the nonprofit Center for Voting and Democracy.

In a traditional runoff, Hill said, voters whose first-choice candidate remains in the runoff will typically go out and vote for that candidate again, while other voters have the opportunity to vote for their second choice.

Supporters point to a study done in Vermont. Presented to that state's Legislature in 1999, it found 90 percent of students participating in mock elections using the system said they wanted the state to adopt it. Forty-six percent said it would make them more likely to vote, while just 1 percent said it would make them less likely.

Reporter Gabriel Spitzer can be reached at [email protected]

For more information on the yes campaign:

907-559-4IRV (4478) www.alaskansforvotersrights.com

Alaskans for Voters Rights
P.O. Box 93588
Anchorage 99509-3588

For more information on the no campaign:

907-258-6160

No on 1: Fair Elections for Alaska
P.O. Box 101934
Anchorage 99510


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