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Burlington Free Press

Time has come for IRV reform
By Marjorie Power
March 17, 2002

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?

Three 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 Representatives.

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.

The IRV 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 constitutional muster.

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.

With IRV, 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 without difficulty.

Marjorie Power of Montpelier was chairwoman of the Vermont Commission to Study Preference Voting, established by the Vermont House of Representatives in 1998.

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