The Columbian 

Instant Runoff Is One Reform That Works
By John B. Anderson and John Gear
October 6, 1999

Fearing what Pat Buchanan's likely exit will do to their 2000 Presidential nominee, the Republican Party is getting a crash course in the advantages of Instant Runoff Voting, where voters get to rank all the candidates, 1-2-3, instead of just voting for one. (The "vote for one only" ballot tends to throw elections to the other side in races with more than two candidates.)

In Vancouver, taxpayers just spent around $50,000 or more for a primary election -- in which 3 out of 4 voters didn't bother. Passing Amendment 1 this November would give Vancouverites a choice about whether or not to keep paying for expensive, low-turnout primaries. Amendment 1 simply allows use of Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) to elect officeholders in a single November election, when voter turnout and attention peak.

Primaries are supposed to ensure majority rule by narrowing races to two candidates for the November election. Paradoxically, this can actually defeat majority rule. Take, for example, the race for Council position 5. The candidates who advanced, Jeanne Lipton and Julie Pirruccello, got fewer than half the votes - which means most voters supported candidates who were dropped. This leaves Vancouver needing an expensive second round election to choose between candidates who the majority already rejected once.

Amendment 1 offers a better way, allowing (not requiring) Vancouver to use IRV. IRV needs just one round of voting to find the majority's choice, and it never leaves voters stuck with two candidates that many (or, as happened this year, most) voters opposed. That's fairer to everyone, candidates and voters alike.

With IRV, taxpayers will save many tens of thousands of dollars. The 1999 costs for the three primaries are not tabulated yet, but the 1997 cost for just one primary race was $46,881, around 35 cents per resident. The 1995 cost for three primaries - with only about half as many residents - was $28,604, around 50 cents per resident.

IRV is also cheaper for candidates, who only have to raise money once and campaign once. This helps reduce the role of money in city elections. So IRV is cheaper for everyone.

Voting using IRV is simple. You simply rank as many of the candidates as you like in the order you prefer them: 1, 2, 3, etc. To find the winner we count the first-place votes. Any candidate who gets a majority wins.

But if there is no majority, then the candidate with the fewest votes is dropped and the ballots cast for that person are transferred to the voter's next choice. It's the same as if your favorite candidate is dropped during the primary and then you vote for your next choice in the general election - only with IRV, just one election is needed. Even better, you aren't limited to choosing between just two candidates - you get to rank as many as you like. IRV encourages better campaigning and discourages mud-slinging. This is because candidates know that winning may require second and third choice votes from opponents' supporters. [That means candidates will avoid personal attacks against opponents, making IRV better for campaigns too.]

[Recognizing these advantages - a fairer, cheaper, better election method - the Vancouver Charter Review Committee recommended Amendment 1 and the City Council placed it on the November 2 ballot.]

IRV has been used for over 70 years in Ireland and Australia, and a similar ranked ballot system has been used in Cambridge, Massachusetts for five decades. Last year, Santa Clara County, California voters approved a charter amendment much like Amendment 1, and a citizen initiative will likely put IRV on the ballot in Alaska next year. The League of Women Voters - Vermont has endorsed IRV for statewide elections, and campaigns for IRV are taking place in cities in New York, Texas, New Mexico, Michigan and California. IRV is a cost-saving reform with supporters all across the political spectrum.

[Some people have expressed concern that Amendment 1 will require Vancouver to fund new voting equipment. It will not. Vancouver has 1960's-era voting equipment, which will not last forever. King, Thurston, Pierce, and Snohomish counties have or are now replacing their antiquated punchcard voting systems with modern optical scanners, which handle IRV at no extra cost. Whether or not Amendment 1 passes, Vancouver will have to get new equipment before too many more elections pass.]

Amendment 1 imposes no costs because it is purely optional. It simply allows the City Council to pass a resolution 30 days before the filing deadline for an election specifying the use of IRV - a fairer, cheaper, and better system - after the voting equipment can support it. Amendment 1 deserves support this November.

Law professor John B. Anderson is a former 9-term Congressman from Illinois and 1980 presidential candidate. 
John Gear served on the 1999 Vancouver Charter Review Committee. 
To learn more about IRV, visit the FAIRVOTE Vancouver website, or call the Columbian's INFO-LINE at 699-6000, category 4021.

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