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Portland Press Herald

Instant runoff elections would guarantee majority votes
By Jim Brunelle
July 5, 2002

If, as Al Smith liked to say, the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy, something called "instant runoff voting" may be the cure for nonmajority elections.

With two-party politics in terminal decline, more and more candidates are being elected to high political office by far fewer than a majority of votes cast.

This can happen whenever more than two candidates for the same office appear on the ballot. The candidate who accumulates the biggest vote total wins the election, even if it's only a plurality

Gradually this is becoming a serious problem for the democratic process, leading as it does to election results that are less than clear-cut in terms of voter intentions.

The cure for the ills of less than clear-cut elections may be more elections. Or, in the case of instant runoff voting, more choices.

Here's how it works: Instead of just voting for a single candidate when there are three or more contenders for a given office, voters get to rank their choices in order of preference.

If any one candidate gets a majority of the votes, he or she is declared the winner. But if no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated and the second-choice votes designated by that candidate's supporters are distributed accordingly to the remaining candidates.

This goes on until one candidate receives a clear majority.

Each of Maine's last four governors - Angus King, John McKernan, Joseph Brennan and James Longley - has won at least one election by less than a majority vote. King won with just over 35 percent in 1994.

The unaffiliated Longley's 39.1 percent victory in 1974 triggered the process, encouraging independent and third-party candidates to run in every election since.

Before Longley, while there were close elections - Kenneth Curtis in 1970 and John Reed in 1962 each won with a bare 50.1 percent - races were basically two-person contests, producing majority winners regardless of how thin the margin of victory.

All that changed when multicandidate elections became the norm.

There's a good chance the history of Maine government over the past three decades would have been vastly different if a ballot mechanism ensuring a majority winner had been in place.

Several states, mostly in the South, currently use two-round runoffs to settle elections when no candidate wins a majority the first time around.

But two-round runoffs have several drawbacks, including the public cost of holding a second election, the inconvenience to voters, changes in voter turnout between elections, the need for candidates to raise more money and the inevitable intensification of negative campaigning of the sort that turns voters off and diminishes the election process.

Instant runoff voting, on the other hand, avoids all of these problems and produces a winner by majority vote quickly and surely, using available technology.

Much has been made of the idea that Jonathan Carter, who is currently running as the Green Independent Party candidate for governor, is little more than a spoiler in this year's race. Supporters of Democratic candidate John Baldacci reportedly tried to talk Carter out of running since it was thought he would draw most of his votes from people who would otherwise vote for a Democrat.

This is not an idle theory. In 1994, the difference between independent King and Democrat Brennan was less than 2 percentage points. Carter, who also ran that year, took 6.4 percent of the vote.

It was a meager showing, but it was large enough to have changed the outcome if most of those votes had gone to Brennan, which was not only likely but probable. Instant runoff voting would eliminate that "spoiler" factor in elections.

It's not exactly a new idea.  Instant runoff voting was the brainchild of an MIT professor in the late 19th century and was first used in Australia and later in Ireland. A few states have flirted with the process over the years but it never really caught on.

But signs of renewed interest in the idea have recently surfaced. As of this year, San Francisco will begin using the system for city elections. Vermonters overwhelmingly endorsed the concept at town meetings this spring. Alaska voters will address the proposal in August.

A bill to establish instant runoff voting in Maine was introduced in the Legislature last year, but it went nowhere. Americans do not change democratic traditions easily.

But this is one reform that needs to be considered seriously if we are to preserve the fundamental principle of democracy - majority rule.

Jim Brunelle (e-mail: comments on politics and other issues for the Portland Press Herald.

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