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Birmingham News

What if they gave an election and no one came?
By Rob Richie and Edward Still
September 1, 2002 

A statewide election costs $3 million in Alabama whether any one shows up or not. We ought to be asking why we spend so much when a large number of voters find the runoff to be less worth their time than the first round of the primary. In the recent Republican and Democratic primaries, the statewide vote dropped by nearly a third between the first and runoff primaries. The Republican primaries take the prize for the largest decrease - more than 50% in each of the three statewide races. In fact every winner of a statewide runoff obtained fewer votes in the runoff than they had won in the first round If political parties want to have a majority supporting their candidates, is there an easier way - and a cheaper one? We believe there is.

Alabama should return to a method similar to one it used early in the Twentieth Century by combining the first and second primary into one election. In short, it should replace traditional "delayed" runoff elections for its legislative and executive offices with instant runoff voting (IRV).

Instant runoff voting is new to many in the United States, although invented by an American in 1870 and suggested in Robert's Rules of Order. 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. Those who voted for one of these eliminated candidates have their ballot count for their runoff choice, adding to the totals of those candidates advancing to the runoff count. The winner will have a majority, almost certainly with more votes than obtained in a delayed runoff..

IRV permits candidates to win with majority support in one election. We especially need it in Alabama because local and primary elections regularly require delayed runoffs. IRV would have numerous other benefits in Alabama:

  • 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. This scramble 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.
  • The campaign debate would improve. Because candidates know they may need second or third preferences, they will be less inclined to attack opponents unfairly.
  • Instant runoff permits people to vote for lesser-known 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.

Instant runoff voting saves taxpayer money, helps clean up campaigns and ensures majority rule with maximum participation. The Alabama Legislature and governor should 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, an educational organization located in Takoma Park, MD. Edward Still is a director of the Center and a lawyer in Birmingham and Washington, D.C.


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Copyright 2002 The Center for Voting and Democracy
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