IRV Supporters Say Partisanship Sunk Alaska
By Aron Goetzl
August 29, 2002
Supporters of instant runoff voting blamed partisan
politics for this week's defeat of Ballot Measure 1 in Alaska at an
American Political Science Association panel discussion here
"[The campaign] had this partisan edge to it," said
Rob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and
Democracy, a group that advocates instant runoff voting (IRV).
"Certainly Democrats were more fearful of it than Republicans were
eager for it. The Democrats were able to say, 'This isn't good for
us.' There wasn't a corresponding, 'This is really great for us'
from the Republicans."
The initiative, which would have brought IRV to all
Alaskan elections except the race for governor, failed 64 to 36
percent Tuesday. An IRV system allows voters to rank candidates by
preference and eliminates the need for separate runoff elections.
Alaska would have become the first state to adopt the process,
though San Francisco voters approve an IRV proposal last March.
Supporters of IRV had been confident in the days
leading up to this week's primary that they could pull off their
biggest victory yet in their nationwide campaign. Richie said that a
poll conducted a few weeks before the election had shown the measure
ahead in the state.
"But we knew the support was soft," he said. "At the
end of the day, the undecideds in this race really broke heavily to
'No' on the measure."
The campaign created some unlikely allies and foes in
the state. Republicans, who have failed to capture the governor's
mansion for more than two decades despite being the clear majority
party, were the primary supporters of Alaska's IRV effort.
"This was sparked by activists in the Republican Party
who felt that they were losing votes to other conservative parties,"
Richie said. Specifically, a Democrat won the 1994 gubernatorial
race with only 41 percent when two conservative candidates split the
remaining balance of the vote.
The state's minor parties also supported the IRV
initiative. But state Democrats put up strong opposition, along with
the League of Women Voters and some newspaper editorial boards.
Conversely, in San Francisco, Democrats led the successful campaign
for IRV last March and in Vermont, the League has supported a
town-level effort. Newspapers around the country have generally been
supportive of IRV.
The face-off between Republicans and Democrats
particularly hindered support, one IRV proponent said yesterday.
"One political party put it forward to try to solve
its own political problems," said Malcolm Mackerras, professor at
The University of New South Wales. "Once you do that, you're going
Added Richie, "[Democrats] saw the GOP was for it and
figured they should be against it."
The setback leaves San Francisco and Vermont as the
primary places to watch for IRV developments in the near future.
"[IRV in Alaska] would have been a huge advance,"
Richie said. "But there weren't many states lining up to follow it."
Mickey Edwards, a former U.S. Representative from
Oklahoma and a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of
Government, issued a message of caution to supporters of IRV.
Edwards, a proponent of runoff elections, said IRV
eliminates the valuable head-to-head competition that can develop
between two candidates that advance to a separate runoff.
"I think it is valuable to remember that there are
downsides to instant runoffs," he said.
But he added, "I think instant runoff is better than