Technology offers a better
way to vote: IRV can save money, effect better
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
William Pietz, a resident of
Los Angeles, is co-chair of the California Instant Runoff Voting
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
Can IRV be implemented in Los Angeles County?
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
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
What elections can IRV be used for?
IRV can be used
to elect an official in any office including statewide positions and
Where can I get more information on IRV?
On the internet
Visit www.fairvote.org or www.calirv.org
This article also appeared in
the San Gabriel Valley Tribune