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Burlington Free Press

New voting methods can help Vt.
By Bill McKibben
November 16, 2002

The first few elections I got to cover as a young newspaper reporter took place in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They've stuck in my mind ever since, not just because I was still fresh enough to really enjoy election night drama, but also because the city used the most interesting electoral system I've ever seen-one that Vermont could, and probably should, adapt to make its elections fairer, and also to head off the kind of train wreck that very nearly marred last week's balloting.

In Cambridge, each voter ranks his choices on the ballot. That is, he picks the candidate he likes best and puts a "1" next to her name. His next favorite gets a "2," and so on, as far down the list as he cares to go. Ranking candidates gives voters increased flexibility and power and protects majority rule. When electing one candidate, for example, all the #1 choices are counted first. If no candidate is the first choice of 50% plus one, the lowest candidates are eliminated, just like in a runoff election. In the next round, their ballots count for the candidate ranked #2 on them. Eventually, one candidate will receive a majority.

This so-called "instant runoff voting" will be debated vigorously by the legislature this year. Already, voters in 53 of 56 towns that considered it at town meeting gave their support. State politicos from Ruth Dwyer to Barbara Snelling to Anthony Pollina have backed it in the past. Almost always their argument has been that it's fairer than the current system.

Which is true: it eliminates the possibility that someone will win office with a mere plurality of votes. And it does it without the expense and angst of a runoff election, or without the truly unsavory idea of state legislators casting a secret ballot to choose the governor.

But in practice there's an even better-and more Vermontish-reason to support instant runoff voting. Because each candidate wants not only the votes of their own hard-core supporters but also the #2 votes of those backing other candidates, it helps guarantee a kind of civility and constructive debate this state has long been famous for. There's little to gain and much to lose with all-out negative attacks; a kind of fusion politics comes naturally. Which is one reason why Cambridge, though deeply divided by class and race, never fell into the kind of vicious demagoguery that wrecked Boston during the school busing crisis. Instead, people tended to work with each other, before, during, and after elections.

The system is not technically difficult to run: Cambridge has a population a fourth the size of Vermont, and it's never had a problem. San Francisco, with more voters than Vermont, has recently adopted the same system. Australia has used it for eight decades. It's a lot cheaper than conventional runoff elections, with their extra weeks of tiresome campaigning-with instant runoffs, you just need to truck the ballots to Montpelier and hire people to count them, exactly as you would now if a recount was necessary. It's a lot quicker and more democratic than waiting for the legislature to convene in January to pick a winner.

And it's not at all difficult for voters. In fact, it's a lot easier than trying to mentally calculate: "Should I vote for Anthony Pollina, or will that help the Republicans?" "If I back Con Hogan, am I going to cost Jim Douglas?" My fourth-grade daughter is exceptionally good at ranking in maniacal detail her best friends, her favorite songs, her top Beanie Babies.

I've got no standing to advise anyone in Vermont on running elections-this was my first time to vote here, after a lifetime lived in the Adirondacks. But one of the things I've always admired about Vermont from a distance is its commitment to true democracy. Instant runoff voting is an easy fix, and having watched it in action I know its benefits go even deeper than guaranteeing fairness.

Bill McKibben's books include The End of Nature, which has been translated into 20 foreign languages, and the forthcoming Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age. A visiting scholar at Middlebury College, he lives in Ripton.

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