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Prince George's Journal (MD)

Instant runoffs could reform costly special elections
By Eric C. Olson
May 7, 2002

Voters in Prince George's County Council District 8 must go to the polls twice within the month in primary and general elections to fill the seat of "Ike" Gourdine, just as District 1 voters made two recent trips to the polls to elect Councilman Tom Dernoga after "Mike" Maloney's death.

It is only appropriate that Prince George's County holds special elections to fill council vacancies. Both Maloney and Gourdine were ardent believers in trusting voters to pick their representatives.

Two-round special elections, however, present a number of problems that deserve scrutiny. Among other issues, consider the following:

Low turnout: Often, special elections result in low voter turnout, particularly in the decisive, second election. In the recent District 1 special election, turnout was under 16 percent. ``Voter fatigue" and taking time out of schedules twice within a few short weeks both contribute to low turnout. In District 1, the special primary came the week before Christmas; in District 8, the second round will be near Memorial Day. No matter what time of year a vacancy occurs, finding two dates for each special election is difficult.

Disrupts our school system: The law states that public buildings must be available for elections. Because of these elections, there has been considerable turmoil within schools and a disruption of the school calendar. Schools closed during the December primary to fill Maloney's District 1 seat, but they chose not to lose a school day for the January election. In District 8, schools remained open for the April 23 primary and will be open for the special general election on May 21. In District 1, 14 schools were used as polling places during the two elections, while in District 8, that number is 19 schools. That means disruption for students, teachers and administrators both during the two elections, but also in preparing for the event. Further, it means outsiders in the schools twice in a month, and more traffic on school grounds around thousands of children.

Inefficient: Holding two special elections - a primary and a runoff - to fill a seat is redundant and inefficient when only one is necessary to produce the same result. Particularly to fill vacancies, two election rounds are a hassle for voters, candidates and election administrators. Citizens are subjected to an additional month of politicking, phone calls, political mail and partisan appeals; candidates and their supporters must raise more special interest campaign money in a hurry; and election officials lose a month from their normal duties.

Costly: There is, of course, a monetary cost to Prince George's citizens for holding a second election round - paying poll workers, printing voter education materials and the like. The city of San Francisco estimated it would save $2 million by eliminating one election round. In a time when Prince George's schools seek greater funding, we can ill-afford to waste money on a superfluous second round of election.

Seemingly, there is logic to two-round, primary and general special elections: to prevent one-round first-place-wins-all results, where a fragment of the vote could result in a low plurality winner. France, for example, could have experienced a disastrous result if April's election were only one round and if the right-wing candidate, Jean Marie Le Pen received only a few percentage points more - he could have become President with barely over 19 percent of the vote in one round.

Thankfully, there is a more efficient election method that simulates election rounds, even though voters only need to come to the polls once. Instant runoff voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate wins a majority of first-choice votes, the candidates with the least support are eliminated sequentially, and their supporters' runoff choices are tallied as they would be in a two-round election. This continues until a majority winner emerges.

Used for major elections in Ireland, Australia and London, among other places, instant runoff voting is quickly earning support in the United States. On March 5, San Francisco voters passed a referendum to adopt instant runoff voting for citywide elections. Right here in Prince George's County this spring, the University of Maryland's student government adopted this voting method for their elections. Last year, Robert Hertzberg (D), speaker of the California State Assembly, introduced legislation to implement instant runoff voting for filling congressional and legislative vacancies. In Vermont, 52 of 55 towns recommended that the state should adopt instant runoffs for statewide elections, and supporters there include Gov. Howard Dean (D), Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz (D), the League of Women Voters, and Common Cause. The Utah Republican Party uses instant runoff voting to select their candidates, and Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D) introduced legislation in Congress to encourage instant runoffs for presidential elections.

As the Prince George's County Council considers reform of the County Charter, they should resolve the problem of holding too many costly elections on one hand, while ensuring that officials are democratically elected by a majority on the other hand. Our County Council would be wise to consider and adopt instant runoff voting, especially in special elections with large fields of candidates.

Eric C. Olson is deputy director of the Center for Voting and Democracy (, a national nonprofit organization based in Takoma Park, and is a member of the College Park City Council.

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