Burlington Free Press
has come for IRV reform
By Marjorie Power
The Vermont Constitution requires a majority to elect our
governor. That's majority rule. However, if the voting system fails
to determine a majority winner, the selection of governor is thrown
to the legislature. Instant runoff voting (IRV) determines a
majority winner in a single election, by combining a regular
election, with a runoff among the top candidates.
IRV is a reform
whose time has come. Look at the surge of support: overwhelming
approval by over 50 towns voting on this issue at town meeting;
editorial endorsements from The Burlington Free Press, the Rutland
Herald, the Caledonian Record and others; support from the state's
top election official, the secretary of state; endorsement by civics
organizations such as the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, the
Grange and VPIRG; support from all three major candidates for
governor in 2000 (Howard Dean, Anthony Pollina and Ruth Dwyer, who
sponsored the bill as a House member).
So what's the holdup?
misinformed concerns are often repeated by opponents: first, a
question regarding the constitutionality of IRV; second, the
system's logic; and third, the "too complicated" argument. These
have all been examined and answered by The Commission to Study
Preference Voting, which was established by the Vermont House of
The Constitution requires a committee of the
Legislature "to receive, sort, and count the votes for Governor,"
and declare the person with a majority elected. That committee
hasn't actually counted ballots since at least 1815. Instead, they
rely on the assistance of the secretary of state and the courts in
the case of recounts. They receive these "advisory" reports and
adopt them. If the report indicates no candidate received a
majority, they refer the election to the General Assembly.
bill would work in exactly the same way, except that with IRV the
committee would know which candidate was the choice of the majority
of voters, no matter how many candidates ran. Thus, while the IRV
results are technically "advisory," they are no more, and no less
so, than the current law. Every constitutional expert who has
researched this question has concluded that the IRV bill passes
The second concern has to do with the logic
of IRV. Kenneth Arrow won the Nobel Prize for proving there is no
perfect voting system. All have some theoretical contradictions, but
there is widespread agreement that our current "plurality" system is
about the worst. With our current system, voting for your favorite
candidate might perversely help elect your least favorite. If
several candidates split the vote, a candidate the majority of
voters think is the worst choice may be declared elected.
voters have the option of ranking runoff choices. Giving a second
choice can never hurt that voter's favorite choice. IRV more
efficiently uses the same logic as a traditional runoff election,
and assures a majority winner in a single election. There are a few
political scientists who nit-pick, and suggest there might be an
even better system than IRV, but the American Political Science
Association (professors who study these things) has adopted IRV for
electing its own president.
The third argument about complexity is
answered by the dozens of mock elections conducted by the commission
at senior citizen centers and schools across Vermont. We found that
Vermonters easily adapted to the IRV ballots. Voters can still mark
their ballot in exactly the same manner as they are accustomed, but
with the added option of indicating runoff choices if they wish.
It's ridiculous to suggest that Vermonters aren't as smart as the
millions of voters in Australia and Ireland who use IRV ballots
Marjorie Power of Montpelier
was chairwoman of the Vermont Commission to Study Preference Voting,
established by the Vermont House of Representatives in