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Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Save time, money with instant runoffs
By Rob Richie and Robert Pastor
April 11, 2002

Congress has been debating ways to improve elections in the country, but our cities and states do not have to wait. They can implement an important reform -- instant runoffs -- that could save taxpayers money and time. San Francisco has pointed the way, and Atlanta and Georgia should follow.

On March 5, San Francisco voted to replace traditional "delayed" runoff elections for its major offices with instant runoff voting.

Instant runoff voting is new to many in the United States, but it was invented by an American in 1870. Voters indicate both their favorite and their runoff choices by ranking candidates: first choice, second and so on. If no candidate wins a majority, the weak candidates are eliminated. The second choice of those who voted for the eliminated candidates is added, and this process continues until someone gets a majority.

Used for major elections in Australia, Ireland and Great Britain, IRV permits candidates to win with majority support in one election. We especially need it in Georgia because we rely on delayed runoffs in local and primary elections and in general elections for statewide office if no candidate receives 45 percent.

Instant runoff voting not only will save San Francisco approximately $2 million a year, but it will also weaken the influence of special-interest contributors, promote higher voter turnout and remove incentives for negative campaigning.

IRV would have numerous benefits in Georgia:

  • Taxpayers would save time and money. Traditional runoffs are costly. Reducing the number of election days will allow administrators to spend their resources more efficiently.
  • Candidates are less likely to be indebted to special-interest contributors. Right now, candidates often fight to make the runoff and then find their campaigns strapped for cash. One only has to recall the 1997 Atlanta mayoral election, when candidates were desperate to raise money. This scamble for cash all too easily leads to ethical abuses.
  • All votes will count, and the winner gets a majority. By combining the two rounds of the runoff, IRV ensures maximum turnout in one decisive election. In traditional runoffs, voter turnout typically drops in the second election. In the U.S. Senate runoff in 1992 between Wyche Fowler and Paul Coverdell, voter turnout dropped by nearly a million voters from the November election to the December runoff.
  • The campaign debate would improve. Because candidates know they may need second or third preferences, they will be less inclined to attack opponents unfairly.
  • In general elections, instant runoff permits people to vote for third-party candidates without fear of wasting their vote. This will allow candidates to promote particular issues such as campaign reform that mainstream candidates might be less interested in promoting.

Georgia's new electronic voting machines can make it even easier for voters to rank candidates. Instant runoff voting saves taxpayer money, helps clean up campaigns and ensures majority rule with maximum participation. Let's not wait for Congress to pass election reform. Let's hope the Georgia Legislature and governor will take the lead in adopting instant runoff voting in state elections and make it an option for local elections.

Rob Richie is executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. Robert Pastor is professor of political science at Emory University and president of Common Cause Georgia.

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