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The Eugene Register-Guard

Runoff voting would save time, money 
By Matt Donohue and Ken Tollenaar
June 13, 2001.

On Wednesday, the Eugene City Council will consider sending to voters a charter amendment calling for a new and fairer method of electing the mayor and city councilors. This new method is called "instant runoff voting," and it was proposed by the city's Charter Review Committee.

Under the current system, candidates for mayor and City Council run first in the May primary. If one candidate achieves a majority in May, only that candidate's name appears on the ballot in November, although voters may write in additional names. If no candidate gets a majority in May, the top two candidates are on the ballot in November.

Instant runoff voting would be used when there are three or more candidates for the same office or position, including any write-ins. Under instant runoff voting, instead of casting a single vote for only ne candidate, you would mark your ballot for your first choice, and if you wish you would also mark your second choice, third choice, etc., up to the number of candidates on the ballot. You could rank as many or as few candidates as you desire.

When the votes are counted, if any candidate received a majority of first hoices, that candidate would be elected. But if no one had a majority, rather than waiting six months for a runoff election, the runoff would be immediate. The candidate who received the fewest votes would be eliminated from the race and the votes would be recounted with the eliminated candidate's votes transferred to those voters' second choice. Again, if a candidate now had a majority, the election would be decided. If not, the second-lowest vote getter would be eliminated, those votes would be transferred and the process would continue until one candidate received a majority.

One great advantage of instant runoff voting is that the entire election would take place at one time, thus saving money for candidates and the taxpayers (and reducing the amount of junk mail and lawn sign visual clutter for all citizens). A related advantage would be that lections for mayor and councilor would be scheduled for November rather than May, thus assuring a higher turnout.

Additional advantages are 1) voters would get to express their true preferences without fear that their choice would help elect their least preferred candidate; and 2) candidates would be encouraged to address issues that concern a broader segment of the community. These and other advantages would be achieved while preserving the basic principle of majority rule.

A Register-Guard editorial (April 26) expressed skepticism about instant runoff voting, alleging that the system is "unfair" because "voters who support the least popular candidate get first crack at deciding a close election" and "supporters of long-shot candidates" get to "have their cake and eat it, too."

Well, the exact same thing happens under the current system. Those voters who supported "the least popular candidate" in May get to vote again in November. The only difference is that under instant runoff voting, it would all happen at the same election.

A 1975 Michigan circuit court judge addressed the issue of fairness in a case upholding Ann Arbor's use of instant runoff voting to elect its mayor in 1974. The judge observed that under instant runoff voting, "All voters possessed the right at the same time (election day) to decide who their second choice etc., candidate would be if their first choice were eliminated from the race. ... (A vote whose first choice candidate has been eliminated) does not have his vote counted twice - it counts only once and if that first preference no longer remains and is eliminated from consideration, his or her second preference is the `counted' vote. Voters for the top two candidates still have their vote counted for their first choice."

Eugene is not the small, homogeneous community it once was. It is growing not only in size, but also in social and political diversity. Institutions that worked well in the past must be adapted to the changing circumstances of the present. Instant runoff would allow for the expression of diverse viewpoints while assuring the election of officials who enjoy majority support. It would be a good fit for Eugene.

Matt Donohue is chairman of the Eugene Charter Review Committee. Ken Tollenaar, a former Eugene city councilor, is a member of the committee.

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