Christian Science Monitor
Runoffs? Go Slow
April 17, 2002
democracy don't usually go hand in hand. But when it comes to
instant runoff voting (IRV), San Franciscans, for one, have been
quick to adopt the idea, and Vermonters have roundly endorsed it.
Generally, IRV works like this: Voters make their first choice for
an elected official, and at the same time make a series of runoff
choices - all in one trip to the polls. If a clear winner isn't
produced in the first round, votes cast for a losing candidate are
transferred by computer to a voter's second choice. Individuals
getting the least number of votes drop off, and a winner is
Vermonters, in 52 out of 55 town meetings,
endorsed the idea for statewide elections. Last month, San
Franciscans voted (56 percent to 44 percent) to adopt IRV for city
The idea of instant runoff voting has immediate appeal.
Runoffs are costly, and cumbersome for voters. With IRV, that cost
is eliminated for both candidates and government. The system can
also help citizens who favor third-party candidates, but who don't
want to be seen as election spoilers. It may also encourage those
with less money and less name recognition to run, since they could
end up as a second choice and thus have a shot.
IRV could even work
to reduce negative campaigning. Candidates might be more leery of
attacking one another knowing that while they may not be a voter's
first choice, they may be his or her second choice.
states and localities considering the concept should pay attention
to some negatives as well. The right to vote may be better protected
when citizens can take the time to thoughtfully weigh choices and
trade-offs within the new dynamics naturally created between a pair
of runoff candidates. And in this post-butterfly ballot world,
voters may well find IRV confusing.
The period between a general
election and a runoff can be an opportunity for party regulars to
work to increase turnout, for candidates to clarify issues, and for
voters to gain greater perspective.