voting method gains popularity: Instant runoff lets voters rank
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
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
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,"
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