The Bangor News'
Maine: Instant Runoff
Voting Lets Democracy Thrive
December 30, 2002
Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) is not the kind of
hot-button issue that gets people demonstrating in the streets. But
perhaps it should be, as it may make the difference between genuine
majority democracy and government run by minority parties who do not
reflect the will of their constituents. States with strong
traditions of third party or independent candidacies are confronted
with a situation where a relatively weaker candidate draws votes
from the candidate with the most similar viewpoint, leading to the
election of the candidate that is least similar.
That was the case
for progressives in state Senate District 11 (All of Waldo County
and Appleton in Knox County), who beat themselves in the election of
Nov. 5. By splitting our votes between Democrat Joe Brooks and Green
Independent Oliver Outerbridge, we elected Republican Carol Weston.
It's hard to see this outcome as genuine democracy. While some
Democrats and Republicans have suggested that the way to address
this situation is by discouraging third party and independent
candidacies, this approach has damaged democracy without aiding the
parties that pursue it - as the presidential election of 2000 amply
Furthermore, it does nothing to address a situation such
as the Democratic primary for the state's 2nd Congressional
District, where the winning candidate out of a field of six called
himself pro life and got a mere 30 percent of the vote.
explained by the Center for Voting and Democracy:
voters to rank candidates as their first choice, second choice,
third, fourth and so on. If a candidate does not receive a clear
majority of votes on the first count, a series of runoff counts are
conducted, using each voter's top choice indicated on the ballot.
"The candidate who receives the
fewest first place ballots is eliminated. All ballots are then
retabulated, with each ballot counting as one vote for each voter's
favorite candidate who is still in contention. Voters who chose the
now-eliminated candidate have to support their second choice
candidate - just as if they were voting in a traditional two-round
runoff election but all other
voters get to continue supporting their top candidate. This process
continues until a candidate receives a majority."
traditional runoff election, this process occurs without the delay
and added cost of actually holding another election, or the loss in
turnout which usually occurs during runoffs - all of which benefits
both efficiency and democracy.
IRV is a well-tested system. It was
invented around 1870 by a professor at MIT named W. R. Ware, and has
been used effectively to elect legislators in Australia for almost a
hundred years. It is used today in Ireland and in a number of U.S.
Here in Maine in 2002, a move to IRV might be seen
to aid Democrats and Greens. Green candidates would no longer lose
votes by being perceived as "spoilers" for Republicans, while
Democrats would benefit both from the added turnout generated by
Greens, and by no longer losing elections because they lose votes to
In Alaska, however, it is the Republicans who are suffering
loses because of third party runs by Libertarians, and who are
therefore the party pushing for IRV. The point is not that any
ideology is favored by IRV, but rather that it is a path to a
Much has been made, in the wake of the 2002
midterm elections, of how the Democratic Party lacks both leadership
and ideas. Ever since the Democratic Leadership Council infected the
party with the idea that winning in the short run was more important
than having principles, Democrats have increasingly positioned
themselves as moderate Republicans.
This has, in turn, freed the
Republicans to move further to the right.
In order still to appear
like moderate Republicans, the Democrats then follow to the right.
The result is that the marketplace of ideas which is the ideological
foundation of the Republican Party is rapidly disappearing into a
homogeneity of right wing candidacies flowing out of both parties.
If either party stands for anything beyond raw individual
opportunism, they must do something to rescue our government from
this constriction in political diversity.
IRV, while it is too
technical to sound glamorous, is a powerful tool for fostering the
emergence of new and innovative approaches to the vexing problems
that our society faces. With IRV, new parties can apply pressure to
the party they are most like, without electing the party they most
dislike. The Democratic Party will be stronger if it is forced to
deal with challenges from the left as well as the right.
Republican Party may appear for a while to be stronger (and will
surely be more powerful) as the effectiveness of the Democratic
challenge diminishes. But if its own belief in the freedom of ideas
to compete for access to government is valid, it won't be long
before the Republican Party - and the Republic - become moribund.
IRV will not magically fix our political system, but without
practical tools like IRV, its not likely that anything will.
Christopher "Cricket" Lyman
lives in Searsmont and is chair of the town Democratic