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The Columbian

Eugene, Ore., next to try preference voting?
Michael Zuzel, for the editorial board
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.

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