Eugene, Ore., next to try
Michael Zuzel, for the editorial
September 5, 2001
It has been almost two years since Vancouver residents
made theirs the only U.S. city to allow preference voting. But the
method, which replaces the traditional primary and general elections
with a single instant-runoff election, has yet to be used here.
This month, voters in Eugene, Ore., may declare
themselves the nation's second preference-vote city. But like
Vancouver, Eugene might wait a long time before actually conducting
an instant-runoff election.
Preference voting is intended to remedy the
winner-take-all aspect of U.S. elections, which, in any race that
attracts three or more candidates, can actually leave a majority of
voters dissatisfied with the outcome.
Instead of a primary election that winnows the field
to two candidates for the general election, a preference vote
welcomes all comers. Voters mark not only their first choice in each
race, but also their second choice, third choice and so on.
If no candidate wins a majority of first-place votes
when the ballots are tabulated, the candidate with the fewest
first-place votes is dropped from the count, and those ballots are
awarded to each voter's second choice. The process is repeated until
one candidate receives a majority of votes.
The system sounds complicated, which probably explains
why proponents haven't had much success in getting preference voting
adopted around the nation. So it was something of a surprise when,
in 1999, Vancouver voters approved an advisory measure in support of
preference voting in future city elections.
That was just about the last anyone has heard of the
matter, however. City council members said the slim, 51-percent
majority by which preference voting was approved didn't represent
any sort of a voter mandate. County elections officials estimated
that the purchase of new equipment capable of tabulating
instant-runoff ballots would cost $30,000 to $50,000. And shortly
after the 1999 vote the strongest local advocate for the preference
system, political activist John Gear, moved to Michigan.
Preference voting faces even worse problems in Eugene,
even if voters there follow the lead of their Vancouver cousins and
endorse the method on the first try Sept 18. Oregon's constitution
has allowed for the preference system for almost a century, but
legal experts disagree about whether it can be enacted on a
city-by-city basis or must win approval from the Legislature.
Other communities could actually take the first
plunge. As The Register-Guard of Eugene reported this week, both San
Francisco and the state of Alaska will ask voters to consider an
instant-runoff system next year. And given the results of last
fall's presidential election, in which supporters of Ralph Nader
were accused of helping to elect George W. Bush, the push for
consideration of voters' second choices may build.
Choice is the key consideration. A voting system that
motivates more people to participate in the process and better
respects their desires is a good thing. The preference voting method
offers at least that possibility.