Bellingham Herald

Instant Runoff Voting for Washington State

(Versions of the following commentary by CVD policy analyst John Gear have appeared in Washington state publications in early March 2001, including the Bellingham Herald.

Most of us have heard the old saw about the child who tells his friend that he's looking for his keys in the gutter near the street lamp rather than where he dropped them because "the light's better here." That wise story points out the futility of using only the existing light (ideas) to find lost valuables (solutions to problems).

That some Washingtonians oppose the Washington State Grange initiative to preserve the blanket primary is an example of this. Seeing only by the light of past practice, critics overlook a simple way Washington lawmakers can prevent 'spoilers' while still allowing both party-nominated and party-affiliated candidates to appear on the same ballot, as the Grange proposes.

Of the Grange plan, one writer has claimed "it destroys the primary entirely by also providing that other persons can file as affiliate candidates for each party and that the affiliate candidate receiving a plurality of votes also would appear on the general election ballot. This means the general election ballot could contain two nominees for each party, thus dividing the party's vote and probably ensuring the election of the other party's candidate."

The Legislature can prevent this "spoiler" problem by giving Washington voters the right to use a full choice (ranked) ballot, rather than the plurality ballot (vote for one only) that creates the spoiler problem. By adding the full choice ballot to the Grange idea, Olympia can give parties their closed nomination process but also give voters a way to overrule party bosses by supporting affiliated candidates as well. With full choice ballots, general election voters rank as many of the candidates as they like 1, 2, 3. If one gets an immediate majority, he or she is the winner. If not, then the bottom-finisher is dropped and all the votes are recounted, with any votes cast for dropped candidates going to the voter's next choice. This repeats until one gets a majority of support. It's the simplest, fairest, and best way to find the one candidate the majority supports when more than two candidates compete.

This kills the spoiler problem. Voters who support either the party nominee or the party-affiliated candidate first can rank the other second, ensuring that their vote will never help elect the candidate from the other party (unless they want it to).

This simple, elegant system is called instant runoff voting, or IRV. The Washington State Senate has held two hearings on SB 5338, which would establish IRV for most Washington State elections. In Vermont, a wide range of civic groups-- including the Vermont Grange-- support a bill implementing IRV for statewide elections.

Although aged punch-card voting machines cannot handle full choice voting, all modern optical scan voting systems can. Between the Florida debacle and the threatened loss of the beloved open primary, Washington lawmakers have every reason to take the best of the Grange plan, add full choice voting to it, and require counties to use voting machines that can handle full choice ballots.

There may be good reasons for political parties to want closed primaries. But there are also good reasons for Washington voters to want more choice among candidates and to be wary of returning to the days when party bosses controlled ballot access. If the Legislature views the problem only in the light of the plurality ballot they will repeat the boy's mistake and search in vain for a solution.

The full choice ballot and instant runoff voting shed new light on the problem and can help Washington find the missing keys to greater voter enthusiasm and participation. For more information about instant runoff voting (and voting machines compatible with full choice ballots), contact the Center for Voting and Democracy (301-270-4616,

[Former Washington resident John Gear is a policy analyst for the Center for Voting and Democracy.]