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Pasadena Star-News

Technology offers a better way to vote: IRV can save money, effect better representation
By William Pietz
March 21, 2002

Election day in Los Angeles County was an embarrassing mess. On the same day, voters in San Francisco took a big step toward improving their elections by making them fairer, more efficient, and less costly. In Vermont, the same thing happened in town hall meetings across the state. San Francisco and Vermont overwhelmingly approved instant runoff voting (IRV).

Instant runoff elections have been around a long time. Australia has used them for nearly a century to elect its House of Representatives. It's how the Irish elect their president, how Londoners elect their mayor, and how voters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, elect their city council. Next fall, there will be a referendum in Alaska to adopt instant runoffs in elections statewide. Last year, California Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg introduced a bill to adopt IRV for statewide special elections.

After the fiasco of our last presidential election, organizations throughout the nation - from the Sierra Club to the Pasadena League of Women Voters - have endorsed IRV. Many states and local governments around the country are taking a serious look at instant runoff voting.

Yet Los Angeles County - the largest and most complicated voting jurisdiction in the country and the place where greater efficiency, fairness and economy in our elections is most desperately needed, has not even begun a study of this common sense, effective method for increasing the fairness of our democracy while saving millions of dollars at the same time.

IRV is gaining popularity across the United States because its advantages are obvious.

One major plus is that IRV ensures that the candidate preferred by the majority actually wins. Too many of our presidents in recent decades have been elected with only 42% or 43% of the vote, far short of a majority.

That makes people wonder if the winner was really the candidate most Americans wanted. So-called "spoiler candidates" often get blamed - Republicans blame those who vote for a Ross Perot, Democrats scold anyone casting their ballot for a Ralph Nader. As if voting for the person you believe is the best candidate was some sort of crime.

Instant runoffs solve the spoiler-candidate problem. Voters no longer have to agonize about "wasting" their vote on the candidate they believe is best. They no longer have to hold their nose and cast their vote for the lesser of two evils instead of voting their principles and their conscience.

In an instant runoff election, voters list the candidates in the order of their preference: "1st choice," "2nd choice," "3rd choice," and so on. If a candidate gets a majority of first choice votes, the election is over. But if no one gets a majority, the weakest candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated from the race and an "instant runoff" is held. This works just like a separate runoff election, only without the weeks of delay, lowered voter turnout, and extra cost of holding another election.

In an instant runoff, voters whose favorite candidate is still in the race have their vote counted for that candidate, just as if they their candidate had made it into a separate runoff election.

Voters whose first choice has been eliminated have their second choice count, just as if they were choosing among the remaining candidates in a separate runoff election. If there is still no majority winner, the next weakest candidate is eliminated and the votes of that candidate's supporters go to their next choice. This is done until one candidate wins a clear majority of the vote.

Because in each runoff tally every voter's ballot is counted for the candidate they most prefer among those still in the race, the winner is always the candidate preferred by the true majority.

If we had IRV in our last presidential election, Pat Buchanan, Ralph Nader, and other minor party candidates would have been eliminated, leaving voters with a clear, final choice between Al Gore and George Bush, Jr. Whoever won, we would know they won because they represented the will of the majority of Americans.

American voters are embracing IRV because it solves the problem of spoiler candidates and non-majority winners in partisan races.

But IRV was invented over a century ago in the United States to solve the problems of local nonpartisan elections. In our races for city council or school board seats, candidates don't run on their party affiliation. Because of this, there are usually far more than two candidates in a given race. Such elections rarely produce a majority winner. That's why we hold another election, a runoff, between to two candidates who won the most votes.

This ensures that the victor will win with a majority of vote. But it also means that a city or the County has to pay for yet another election. Candidates have to raise more piles money from those who have piles of money to give. Weary voters have to turn out for yet another election. And. in a head-to-head runoff, few candidates can resist going negative. This only turns off more voters and lowers turnout even more.

In our stand-alone runoff elections, winning a majority often means winning a "majority" of the 10 or 15 percent of the voters who bother to show up.

Voters in San Francisco approved IRV because the Board of Supervisors had authorized a study which showed that instant runoffs would save millions of dollars by eliminating extra runoff elections, would increase voter turnout by making every election decisive and by making every vote count, and would ensure that the winner was always the true choice of the majority. The advantages of IRV are so obvious that voters are opting for instant runoffs in San Francisco and anywhere they are given the chance to adopt IRV.

The only opposition to IRV seems to be from professional campaign managers who are more interested in controlling the vote than in a holding a fair, democratic election.

To avoid another elections day mess in Los Angeles County, the Board of Supervisors must start taking the needs of our voting system more seriously. Unfortunately, that means money. It's no use scapegoating the Country Registrar-Recorder, Connie McCormack, who is recognized nationally as one of the most dedicated and competent elections officials in the country.

It's time for the Supervisors to admit that restoring a functioning democracy to Los Angeles County means paying polling place workers enough for them to do the job we expect them to do. It means paying the sizable cost of replacing our ancient and soon illegal punch card voting equipment with modern touch screens.

But there is one improvement that will actually save money. The biggest advantage of IRV for Los Angeles County may well be the millions of dollars it will save by eliminating all those unnecessary, low-turnout runoff elections.

William Pietz, a resident of Los Angeles, is co-chair of the California Instant Runoff Voting Coalition.


With IRV how many elections are required?

One. Primaries would no longer be needed ass voters' ranking of candidates create an automatic runoff resulting in the person with the majority support winning an election. Proponents claim that IRV will require less campaign money and would keep campaigns from going "negative." Proponents also claim that because there is only one election, voter turnout would increase.

Can IRV be implemented in Los Angeles County?

No. Los Angeles County's punch-card voting machines cannot handle instant runoff voting. However, ATM-like and optical-scan voting machines, which must be in place by 2005, can easily handle IRV.

Where is IRV currently used?

Globally, Ireland uses IRV to elect its president. Australia uses it to select members of its House of Representatives. San Francisco voters passed a ballot measure earlier this month to use IRV for its local elections, claiming it will save $2 million per election.

What elections can IRV be used for?

IRV can be used to elect an official in any office including statewide positions and local elections.

Where can I get more information on IRV?

On the internet

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This article also appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune

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Copyright 2002 The Center for Voting and Democracy
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