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Richmond Times-Dispatch

A New Kind of Election
By Ray McAllister
August 27, 2002

The example everyone uses is Jesse Ventura.

The former pro wrestler was elected governor of Minnesota in 1998 with only 37 percent of the vote.

That meant 63 percent voted for the other two candidates. There was widespread speculation that most of them would have voted for the other loser as a second choice. If it's true - and assume it is for this hypothetical - that means Ventura would never have drawn a majority. If there had been a runoff between Ventura and second-place finisher Norm Coleman, Coleman would have won.

With more than two candidates in an election, you always have this chance that the winner will have only a plurality.

Wouldn't it be nice to have runoff elections so you'd have a winner to whom the majority did not object.

But runoffs are expensive and time-consuming.

Virginia hasn't had runoffs since 1969, senior policy analyst Rosanna Bencoach of the State Board of Elections said yesterday. State law had allowed runoffs in party primaries - though not general elections - to ensure a winner with a majority. But the law was changed in 1970. You can now win any election with less.

That's why Alaska is worth watching.

Something called Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) is on the ballot there today.

IRV allows voters to rank all the candidates, just in case none gets a majority. If your first choice finishes last, your vote would transfer to a second choice, and so forth, until one candidate finally has a majority.

Essentially there's a series of runoff elections, all conducted by computer within moments of the election's end.

Some other countries already have IRV - like Australia and Ireland - and even localities - San Francisco recently adopted it.

But never a state.

But you can see where it might help.

As the Juneau Empire noted in a Sunday editorial supporting IRV: "Out of the 10 gubernatorial elections Alaska has had since statehood, only two have produced governors selected by majority."

Anyway, Instant Runoff Voting seems perfect, doesn't it?

I thought so.

But Bob Holsworth doesn't like it so much.

Holsworth is director of Virginia Commonwealth University's Center for Public Policy.

"There's a sense that somehow these systems are fairer," Holsworth said yesterday. "The problem all these systems have is that they tend to be more complicated."

Holsworth said the IRV approach is in essence used in both runoff elections and in party conventions, with round-by-round dropouts.

But adopting it for elections, in essence, would change the criteria, he said.

"You move more in the direction of trying to suggest a 'least-objectionable' candidate," Holsworth said. "I tend to like elections in which we vote for the person we like. I tend to think the plurality should rule."

Even Holsworth agreed the issue's not cut and dried, particularly for an election with many, many candidates. "Typically, if you're always going to have multiple candidates, you might want to have runoff elections if no one has over, say, 20 percent," he said.

Otherwise, he said, "I'm not a fan of it, culturally, but it certainly has a legitimate mathematical basis [if you want to] link the actual public will to the outcome of elections."

IRV seems worth watching, anyway.

But could it have beaten Jesse?


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