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Daily Texan

University of Texas-Austin  
Preventing the next Florida fiasco  

By Neil Davis 
July 12, 2001

What if someone invented a system that would have eliminated much of the controversy surrounding the chaotic presidential election? How about a way to remove all doubt about for whom a voter intended to cast a ballot? Or what about a method that would have let Nader lovers cast their third-party votes without fear of helping George W. Bush into the White House? Stop the press. There is a system that could have solved these problems and others, and it's been around for almost 100 years.

Instant runoff voting is a process that avoids third-party controversy, saves money and ensures that winners are supported by a majority of voters. IRV's benefits are so clear that it is being currently being considered for both Austin and UT student government elections.   Instant runoff voting is a system that allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate earns a clear majority, the votes are recounted, with the candidate who received the fewest first-place ballots being eliminated. Ballots are retabulated, with each ballot equaling a vote for the voter's favorite candidate who has yet to be eliminated. If a person's top-ranked candidate is already gone, their vote goes to their second choice, otherwise it remains with their first. The process is repeated until a single candidate emerges with a majority. This eliminates the so-called "spoiler effect" of third-party candidates. In the 2000 presidential election almost 3 million Green Party supporters were faced with the dilemma of aiding George W. Bush by voting for Ralph Nader. Had IRV been in place, Nader voters could simply have ranked Al Gore as their second choice, and he would have received their vote in the decisive recount.  

IRV thus would allow people to cast their ballot based on conscience rather than fear.  

No one worth their salt will argue that IRV does not save money. Since a close race is settled by voters' second and third choices, there is no need for expensive runoffs. This would be especially relevant for the University, given that the large number of candidates for top SG offices usually necessitates runoffs. Last semester's runoff elections cost the university around $6,000 for staffing costs, parking and advertising. While this figure may not seem significant, at least this much is thrown away every year a runoff takes place. Over a 10-year period that $60,000 could hire at least one professor, or two custodial workers, to help alleviate the dreadful understaffing at those positions.  

In addition, IRV is easily compatible with current proposals such as Internet voting. While changing voting infrastructure is usually an expensive proposition, IRV could be programmed into the voting program, making the cost of the transition negligible.  

Perhaps the biggest advantage of IRV is the assurance that candidates will no longer slip into office without majority support from the electorate. Under the current plurality system, a single ideological force can sweep a candidate into office provided they have a large enough voting block. This leads to disproportionate influence by groups such as the elderly, the religious right or unions. Each holds tremendous influence in certain areas of the country, where their stamp of approval can be enough to single-handedly turn an election.  

Once voters are given the power to rank candidates, the power of any one group goes down tremendously. Any candidate who panders to a single group runs the risk of alienating the rest of the electorate, who consequently will rank the candidate lower on their ballot, costing them the election. Thus IRV makes candidates look out for the interests of all voters rather than a few.  

In a time when voting methods are under increasing scrutiny, IRV presents simple solutions for complex problems. It manages to protect the integrity of the democratic process while providing an inexpensive and efficient solution to problems both past and present. There is no better time than now to institute reform, after all, does anyone want a recount in 2004?

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Copyright 2001 The Center for Voting and Democracy
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