Instant runoff elections would
guarantee majority votes
By Jim Brunelle
July 5, 2002
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
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
goes on until one candidate receives a clear majority.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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:
email@example.com) comments on politics and other
issues for the Portland Press