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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

IRV:  That's the ticket!

By John B. Anderson
April 26, 2001

The Florida Legislature is in the middle of a great debate: how best to conduct elections. I would like to offer an innovative solution to a sticky problem bedeviling our policy makers.

Florida has a long tradition of holding runoff elections -- also known as second primaries -- if no candidate earns a majority of primary election votes.

The reason for runoffs is that similar voters can split their vote among candidates, allowing a less popular candidate to finish first with as little as 25 to 35 percent of the vote. That weak candidate might both have a tougher time in the general election and a tougher job as our representative than a candidate better reflecting the majority. Without runoffs, giants of Florida politics like Lawton Chiles, Bob Graham, Reubin Askew and LeRoy Collins might never have won statewide offices, as they needed runoffs to overcome primary opponents.

Because Florida holds the primary election in September, however, the admirable requirement that nominees prove majority support has created quite a calendar crunch. The second primary is in October, and with the general election in November, we must hold three elections in nine weeks. That's a national record, and a daunting administrative challenge.

It is also the cause for complaints from overseas absentee voters. Imagine how difficult it is to get results from an October runoff, print up general election ballots, mail them to a ship in the middle of the Indian Ocean so our servicemen and women can vote, and get them back to Florida in time to be counted for the November election. In fact, there often isn't enough time, which is why courts ordered the state to extend the deadline for certifying ballots until 10 days after the election. That requirement added to the problems of the 2000 elections.

Prompted by election administrators faced with the task of three elections in nine weeks and the further incentive of saving the millions of dollars necessary to conduct runoffs, the state Legislature is now moving rapidly toward abolishing runoffs and the majority requirement.

But runoffs give Florida voters extra power, and abolishing them would throw the baby out with the bathwater. That's why the governor's electoral commission earlier this year opposed elimination of the second primary.

How then can we solve the administrative puzzle and keep the benefits of a runoff election?

The answer lies in Florida history. For several elections in the early 1900s, the state used a system of instant runoff voting -- IRV -- for major primary elections. The system later was adopted by the Irish and the Australians, and has been used for decades for their most important elections.

With instant runoff voting, voters pick their favorite candidate, but in case their favorite candidate doesn't reach the runoff, also can indicate their runoff choices.

They do this by ranking candidates -- 1st, 2nd, 3rd. IRV works the way it sounds: if no candidate earns a majority of votes, then we hold an instant runoff by eliminating the least popular candidates and counting their supporters' ballots for their runoff choices. In the cases where the majority has split its votes, IRV duplicates the results that would be obtained in a traditional runoff election.

IRV would allow us to eliminate the need for the separate October runoff election, giving administrators the breathing room they need to do their jobs. It also would solve the problem of absentee voters needing extra time to return their ballots.

Voters repeatedly have shown they can handle ranked-choice ballots. The main problem, then, is old voting mechanics. Florida abandoned IRV because of its extra demands when counting ballots by hand, and the system couldn't be used on punchcard machines that are too antiquated to maintain a full record of voters' choices. Fortunately, the state is moving to abolish the equipment entirely, a move adoption of IRV would help fund.

Current optical scanners and touchscreen-style machines can handle IRV, but need the right software. Even if not ready to enact IRV, the state should require that all new voting equipment have the capacity to handle ranked ballots. If the state or individual counties decide to use IRV in the future, we won't have to spend millions of dollars retrofitting equipment.

Why pay for two elections when we can get the job done in one? While we grapple with designing the nation's best election system, let's build into our new equipment the ability to conduct instant runoff voting. And let's not give up on rule by the majority.

John B. Anderson teaches constitutional law at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. He is a former congressman and candidate for president in 1980.

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