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Billings Gazette (Montana)

Instant runoff initiative proposed

By Ericka Schenck Smith
August 1, 2001

Matthew Singer is only old enough to have voted in one election, but he is already certain he wants to change how Montanans pick their public officials.

"It's been 12 years since America has had a president who was actually elected by a majority of Americans," Singer, a Billings 18- year-old, said Monday.

Working with the Yellowstone County Green Party, Singer has submitted a proposal for a 2002 ballot initiative to remedy the situation. Singer's proposal would require "instant runoff voting" in all Montana general elections, which means that voters would rank up to six candidates in an election, rather than choosing just one.

So, if no candidate received a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes would drop out, and that candidates' votes would go to the voters' second-choice picks. If there were more than three candidates, and dropping the least popular didn't result in a majority, the second-lowest would drop out, and so on.

In the 1992 presidential election, for example, Montana's electoral votes went to Bill Clinton, even though he had only 37 percent of the votes in the state. George H.W. Bush. had 35 percent; Ross Perot had 26 percent; and two minor third-party candidates each had .09 percent. Under Singer's proposal, the minor candidates would have dropped out first. Then, because there still wasn't a majority, Perot would have dropped out, and his supporters' second-choice candidates would have received his votes, giving either Bush or Clinton a majority.

Singer said the instant runoff process simply guarantees that whoever is voted in actually has the support of a majority of the voters. It also prevents a situation in which, for example, two conservative groups split their votes between two candidates, and a liberal ends up winning the election.

Supporters of losing candidates could still say, "Even though this isn't my first choice, this is still my preferred candidate in the end," he said.

The winner, he said, would be "a mutually acceptable choice." He added that several nationwide, nonpartisan election-reform groups and political parties on the left and right have also supported instant runoff voting.

Singer also said his proposal could help eliminate negative campaigning because candidates wouldn't only be running for the top spot. They would want the support of their opponents' voters, too.

"If we're interested in cleaning up politics, this is a good way to do that," he said.

No state has such a system, but at least a dozen have considered the idea.

Singer's proposal will now receive a close reading from the state's Legislative Services Division, whose staff will make suggestions to clean it up. Then it will be submitted to the secretary of state and attorney general, who will ensure it is properly written and legal. Singer admits there may be a few problems, and he is willing to amend it.

Following any changes, the secretary of state must give the proposal final approval, and then Singer can begin gathering signatures to get it on the ballot. He will need the support of at least 5 percent of the qualified voters in the state, including 5 percent of the voters in each of 34 legislative districts - at least 19,862 signatures.

Singer is leaving in the fall to study politics at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., but he said his party can help gather signatures. He is also working to gain the support and assistance of other organizations across the state.

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