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The Olympian

New voting method gains popularity: Instant runoff lets voters rank their preferences
By Brad Shannon
June 16, 2002

A new method of voting that could keep third-party voters from "wasting" their votes is getting a new look.

Called instant runoff voting, and spurred in part by low voter turnout, it's designed to let voters rank all candidates in a race in order of preference.

In the event there's a virtual tie with no candidate winning an outright majority, supporters of losing candidates could see their second-choice selection counted.

The city of San Francisco is gearing up to try the system in city elections, and the city of Vancouver, Wash., has authorized it once state law is changed to allow it. It's been used in limited ways by political parties including the Reform Party and Green Party in their 2000 presidential conventions.

"I think there's a great deal of disenchantment because of the control of the process by the major parties, and people are unenthusiastic for the nominees. So they don't get out and vote," said Shoreline lawyer Jerry Cronk, a Green Party member and treasurer of the Coalition for Instant Runoff Voting in Washington.

The group hopes to build support for the concept Monday in a legislative hearing in Seattle conducted by Rep. Sandra Romero, D-Olympia, but no one expects the idea to catch on very fast in the face of opposition from the major political parties and county elections officials.

"The parties don't like it. The auditors think it's going to be too much work. The Secretary of State's Office isn't pro, either. But most of the young people I talk to are interested," Romero said Friday.

"So I'm keeping an open mind. If this is something to bring the young voters into government again, I think it deserves a careful look."

State Sen. Dan Swecker, R-Rochester, said: "I find it interesting and attractive. I guess the big hurdle is if it can be accomplished technologically." Swecker is one of a few legislators who has supported the concept in the past two years.

"I think IRV would allow our nation or state, whoever was using it, go to a more multiparty system rather than a two-party system," he said.

Romero hasn't taken a strong position on the issue, but as chairwoman of the House State Government Committee, she is having the forum in Seattle because she wants to gauge political support for it.

The state's top elections officer, Republican Secretary of State Sam Reed, is skeptical that instant-runoff voting can work in the United States. He said it's worked for parliamentary elections in England, for instance, but typically for a single race on the ballot.

Reed said his biggest objection is that having voters rank all candidates in an 11-candidate race like his in 2000 would be confusing to voters who already are overwhelmed by a huge number of choices in some elections cycles. One result could be greater voter turn-off, and "it could be very complicated for the elections administrators," Reed said.

As advocates explain it, runoff voting would work like this: If no candidate wins a majority of votes, the first-choice preferences of the last-place candidate's supporters would be eliminated and their second choices would be used instead. If there still were no majority winner, the first choices of those voting for the next-to-last candidate would be discarded in favor of their second-ranked choices, and so on, until a majority winner was named.

But this could lead to situations where the person with the most votes in the first round doesn't win, which is against the grain of American politics, Reed said.

There are other questions about getting technology that can handle the chores of sorting the votes, Reed said.

That said, Reed said instant-runoff voting has some appealing qualities -- including the ability to let voters cast ballots for third-party candidates who don't win, without throwing away their vote.

The runoff voting concept caught some "added steam" after the 2000 elections when Green Party voters saw their votes for Ralph Nader help elect President Bush. With instant runoffs, Nader voters who ranked Al Gore as their second choice might have propelled the Democrat into the White House.

In Washington state, the exact reverse would have been true in the U.S. Senate race where nearly 65,000 Libertarian voters took potential votes away from Republican Sen. Slade Gorton, who lost by 2,229 votes to Democrat Maria Cantwell. Since then, the advocacy group has encountered more apathy than opposition.

"It's not so much opposition as it's lack of enthusiastic support from people who ought to be on the bandwagon," Cronk said.

What's next

The House State Government Committee will take public comment on instant runoff voting in a work session scheduled from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Monday at the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture, 3501 N.E. 41st St., Seattle. To get there, exit Interstate 5 at 45th Street, go east toward University Village and on to the Union Bay campus.

For information about instant runoff voting after Monday, call the House committee's receptionist at 360-786-7100. The Coalition for Instant Runoff Voting in Washington can be reached at  

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