Burlington Free Press
New voting methods can help
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
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