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New Jersey Star-Ledger

A way around runoffs
May 11, 2002

There ought to be a better way to decide our elections than having a runoff several weeks later. In fact, there may be a better alternative in place already. A system that has been used for years in Ireland and Australia is getting its first American tryout in San Francisco, and this will bear close watching.

There are several arguments against runoffs, which are used at many election levels. One is that they are extremely expensive. Another is that they often produce voter apathy and results that are to no one's liking.

If you want to know how bad a result a system of runoff elections can produce, look at the recent experience in France. Voters assumed that the presidency would be decided in a runoff election between Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin, and few went to the polls in the initial round. As a result, Jospin was edged out by the extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen for a place in the runoff.

Newark's May 14 mayoral election is unlikely to end in a runoff, but this is not entirely out of the question. If so, the second round would not be until June 11. Do we really want another month of this acrimonious campaign?

One answer to the runoff is a system of weighted voting now being tried in San Francisco. Voters in a race of more than two candidates would select their first, second and third choices. The low vote getter in the field would be eliminated and the second- place votes on his line added to the votes for the other candidates. If a voter's first and second choices are eliminated, his third choice would be applied to the remaining candidates. The process would be repeated until there was a winner with more than 50 percent of the vote.

It's not a perfect system, to be sure. In the beginning, it might produce voter confusion. There are advantages, however, that make it worth watching and deserving of consideration for use in other places -- including New Jersey.

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