Better than Runoffs

Instant runoff voting -- Better than Runoffs: The St. Petersburg Times, one of the nation's most respected newspapers, comes out for replacing two-round runoffs with instant runoff voting.

St. Petersburg Times

Instant runoffs
By Editorial
November 6, 2000

Rather than getting rid of the runoff primary, Florida ought to eliminate its problems with the instant runoff.

Florida adopted runoff primaries when nearly all its voters were Democrats and their nomination was, in the stock phrase, "tantamount to election." Now, some people argue that the runoff has outlived its purpose and costs too much for too few voters. Get rid of it, they say.

That would be short-sighted. Without runoffs, Florida would have been denied the monumental leadership of LeRoy Collins, Reubin Askew, Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles, all of whom had run second in first-primary fields.

Moreover, runoffs aren't always poorly attended. Six times since 1954, including the Collins victory that year and Askew and Chiles in 1970, more voters have turned out for the runoff than the first primary. Give voters good choices and they will come.

The runoff, or some similar consensus-building process, is no less necessary now than it was in 1936, when 14 Democrats ran for governor and the leader, who lost later, polled only 15.7 percent. Without runoffs, each party would be more likely to nominate people of extreme views, meaning weaker candidates and poorer choices in November.

Some people have proposed dispensing with the runoff when the leader's first-primary plurality exceeds 40 or 45 percent, but a date would still have to be built into the schedule. Among 20 Florida legislative runoffs last month, only five would have been forestalled by a 40-percent threshold. (In four of the other 15 races, candidates who had run second on Sept. 5 finished first on Oct. 3.) The 40 candidates spent at least $1.2 million during the runoff campaign.

The runoff's problems are potentially solvable with a back-to-the-future remedy known as the instant runoff. Florida tried a version of this from 1916 through 1928, finally surrendering to the massive problem of managing a statewide recount that depended on paper ballots. But with optical scanners and computers widely available to count votes today, technology is no longer an excuse for the Legislature to ignore the instant-runoff alternative.

This is how it works: Voters mark their first, second and, if necessary, third choices for each office. Whoever has a majority of first-choice votes is nominated. But if no one does, the computer counts again, looking for the second-choice votes of voters whose preferred candidate ran last. Those are added to the other candidates' totals. If someone still lacks a majority, the recounting continues until there is a majority winner. This procedure, experts say, guarantees that no one's second choice can ever be used to defeat his first choice. That was a flaw in the old Florida system.

Some politicians contend this is too complicated. Maybe it is for them, but they sell Florida's voters short. The answer is to put intelligent people to work testing various ballot forms to see what might be easy for voters to understand and use.

"It's as easy as 1-2-3," said a Vermont commission that recommended its use in that state's widely splintered general elections. "... To effectively utilize the system voters do not need to learn any of the intricacies of the transfer tabulation methodology, just as hardly any citizens understand how the Electoral College actually works."

By using this method to cull the second primary from the schedule, the first primary could be set later, permanently disconnected from the Labor Day weekend and more likely to draw a higher turnout. This would shorten the election season as well, and voting supervisors could stop worrying about insufficient time to get absentee ballots overseas and back.

It would also reduce campaign fundraising and spending, and not just by those candidates in runoffs. Florida's election law sets separate $500 contribution limits for the primary, the runoff and the general election even when a candidate won't face a runoff. And an instant runoff would save the public millions of dollars from the cost of conducting elections.

Other countries use the instant runoff, and other American states are studying  it. It deserves thoughtful consideration here.