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The Bangor News'


Maine: Instant Runoff Voting Lets Democracy Thrive
By Christopher Lyman  
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 attests.

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.

As explained by the Center for Voting and Democracy:

"IRV allows 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."

Unlike a 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. municipalities.

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 Greens.

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 stronger democracy.

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.

The 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 Committee.

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