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Rhode Island Newspapers

Should the Winner Have a Majority Vote?
September 2002

The result of the Democratic Gubernatorial Primary cries out for Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). Myrth York won with only 39% of the vote, with Sheldon Whitehouse receiving 38% and Antonio Pires 23%. IRV is a simple solution that will yield a majority vote to determine a winner. This does not mean another election; it means that when you vote you can identify your order of preference of the candidates running for a particular office. If there are four candidates and no one receives a majority of the vote, then those who voted for the candidate who placed fourth will have their second choice distributed among the other three candidates. If there is still not a majority vote for a candidate, then those who voted for the candidate who now places third, will have their next choice distributed among the top two vote getters giving one candidate a majority vote.

This solves a lot of problems. In our current plurality election system, if your preference is for a candidate who you feel will not place among the top two, you may consider that your vote for this candidate will allow your least preferred candidate to be elected. Since with IRV a third or fourth place candidate would not be a spoiler in the race, more voters will vote for who they really want, knowing that if that candidate does not make the cut, then their second or third choice will come into play. This may well increase voter turnout as voters realize the advantages of IRV.

On March 5th, San Francisco adopted IRV for electing their mayor and other officials. In March, 52 of 55 towns in Vermont voted to approve an advisory question calling for lawmakers to adopt IRV. New Mexico is giving strong consideration to adopting IRV. There has been IRV legislation in more than a dozen states this past year. On May 11th, the Utah Republican Party used IRV to nominate their candidate for US Representative. Australia, Ireland and Great Britain use IRV. Operation Clean Government ran a well-attended breakfast/forum on the IRV alternative in 1999. The idea was well received at the forum, but we found little interest among elected officials to change the Rhode Island plurality process.

In answer to those who have raised a concern that it's possible for a third-place candidate to win in instant runoff voting, Rob Richie, Executive Director of the Center for Voting and Democracy states, "Yes, it's possible -- and highly unlikely. In Australia's 1996 national elections, out of 148 races none was won by a third-place candidate. Ninety-five percent of first-place candidates won their elections, and five percent of second-place candidates won their elections. But if a third-place candidate were to win, here's why--because at the end of the day that candidate was preferred over the others by the majority."

The results of the 2002 Democrat Gubernatorial Primary would have been interesting if IRV were in place and voters felt safe to choose their first preference. How many did not vote for Pires, fearing that he would place 3rd as the polls indicated? Considering his limited campaign funds and the strong probability that some of his supporters voted for Whitehouse or York, the 23% vote for Pires is impressive.

Beverly Clay
Vice Chair of Operation Clean Government
605 Hazard Rd.
West Greenwich, RI 02817

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Copyright 2002     The Center for Voting and Democracy
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