Makes Gains Nationwide After Strong March Performance
By Jael Humphrey-Skomer
April 5, 2002
Instant runoff voting (IRV), a system in which voters rank
candidates by preference instead of picking one candidate per
office, was once considered a confusing concept that would never
work in American elections.
But that appears to be changing
nationwide. Voters in 52 of Vermontís 55 cities and towns passed
joint resolutions March 10 in support of instant runoff voting. Five
days earlier, San Franciscoís voters approved Proposition A to
introduce instant runoff voting to their city.
On May 11 Utah
Republicans, after a successful trial run of instant runoff voting
to nominate state officials in 2001, will use IRV to nominate
candidates for Congress at their state convention. Cambridge, Mass.
has used a similar system in their city elections, known as
proportional representation since 1941, while New York City uses the
same system to elect its School Board. Vancouver, Wash. passed a
referendum allowing the use of instant runoff voting in 1999.
could be introduced in a number of other states in the near future.
Alaskan citizens collected 35,000 signatures, many more than
required, to place IRV on their August 2002 ballot. Hawaii,
Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington all have IRV
bills pending in their state legislatures.
ìIRV makes sense to
people, said Deborah Markowitz, Vermontís secretary of state. ìWhen
we think about democracy, we think of majority, not plurality rule.î
IRV works this way: If no candidate wins a majority of the popular
vote, the candidate receiving the fewest votes is eliminated and his
or her votes are distributed according to the votersí second
preference. This process is repeated, eliminating and redistributing
the votes of the last place candidate, until one candidate receives
a clear majority ñ 50 percent of the votes plus one.
Constitution dictates that if a candidate for Governor, Lieutenant
Governor, or Treasurer fails to receive a majority, the General
Assembly will determine the winner, which it has 21 times in the
election of the Governor. Under the current plurality system in
Vermont, for other state races the candidate with the most votes
wins despite his actual percentage of support from the electorate.
In San Francisco, prior to approval of IRV, the city would hold a
runoff election in December between the top two candidates if no
candidate received a majority in its November municipal elections.
City Controller Edward Harrington estimated eliminating the second
election will save $1.6 million annually, and advocates claim it
will increase turnout since attendance of the second election is
ìWeíre burning voters out when you have to go to the
voting booths four times to elect a single candidate,î said Steven
Hill, the western regional director of the Center for Voting and
Democracy, a group that promotes IRV.
Supporters claim that IRV can
be a tool to clean up mud-slinging and negative campaigning, because
candidates need to win over their rivalís supporters to get
second-place votes. They also say it will eliminate the ìspoiler
effectî of third-party candidates (such as H. Ross Perot in 1992 and
Ralph Nader in 2000) by allowing voters to rank candidates rather
than select the lesser of two evils.
But not everyone supports the
movement to widen IRV. Mike Ossipoff of the Election Methods
Education and Research Group says the advantages of IRV are
ìillusory.î The voter can cast a symbolic vote for their candidate
of choice, but once the third party is competitive, the voter runs
the risk of having their second choice candidate eliminated because
they failed to rank them first, he said.
ìItís a deceptive and
potentially dangerous non-reform masquerading as a reform,î Ossipoff
While some critics do not think IRV goes far enough, others
think it goes too far. Christopher L. Bowman, member of the ìNo on
Aî steering committee in San Francisco, warned that the new system
will be confusing to voters and disenfranchise language minorities.
Separate runoff elections serve an important purpose ñ allowing
voters a second chance to examine the top two candidates, Bowman
ìIt doesnít improve, it eliminates runoff elections,î he
Implementation presents another hurdle. Vancouver, Wash.,
which passed a referendum permitting IRV in 1999, has never actually
Tim Likness, supervisor of elections for Clark County
which includes Vancouver, said that there was no electronic voting
system in place that could handle IRV. He also questioned whether
the city would run the risk of holding an election that entailed
ìUntil passed by the state, I doubt they
would put themselves in a position where they would have the whole
thing thrown out and have to do it again,î Likness said.
Technology, however, is beginning to accommodate IRV on a larger
scale. According to the Center for Voting and Democracy, most new
voting technology, scanning or electronic systems, already have the
capability to conduct IRV elections.
However, the software that
allows these systems to capture and store ballot images is still
being developed. At this point only Dieboldís AccuVote optical
scanning machines ñ used in Cambridge cityís proportional
representation elections ñ have this software.
In order to conduct
IRV or proportional representation elections, a voting system must
first have the capability to capture and store ballot images. Once
the image has been captured in the memory, the next step is to
deliver the information to a desktop computer, which will calculate
the results of the election.
For this second step, Cambridge uses
Choice Plus Pro, developed by Voting Solutions in Berkeley, Calif.
This software can be used by a computer to calculate the election
results regardless of which voting system captures the votes.
Bowman pointed to possible problems ñ obtaining the software and
the necessary approval ñ that the San Francisco elections department
could face in trying to implement IRV.
Election Systems and
Software (ES&S) which recently sold San Francisco its new Optech
Eagle scanning system, agreed to provide the city with the
technology to run IRV in their original contract. However, they have
yet to develop the software, said Hill, who added that the city is
hopeful that it will be ready for their November elections.
California Secretary of State must certify the system before it can
be used. Once ES&S applies, the software must undergo a series
of tests with independent testing labs and hearings with a voting
systems panel. According to Melissa Warren, of the California
Secretary of Stateís Office, this process could take anywhere from a
few weeks to several months.
Hill was optimistic about San
Franciscoís ability, despite recently troubled elections, to
implement IRV. ìThe technology issues are really not that
[significant] ñ the more important issue is community education,î he
After helping to win the campaign in San Francisco, he is
already busy planning the next steps ñ making educational video
tapes, distributing sample ballots and showing people how to rank
candidates. Education, he said, will dispel the myth that IRV is too
complicated for voters to understand.
ìWhen you look at the rules
of basketball, baseball, football, they are far more complicated,î
he said. ìCompared to that, this is really quite simple.î
ON THE NET:
Center for Voting and
Education and Research Group
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