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Trenton Times

A better voting system
March 12, 2002

Last Tuesday, the voters in San Francisco made their city the largest in the country to adopt instant runoff voting (IRV), an efficient, sensible, democratic way to pick winners in elections in which more than two candidates compete. On the same day, voters in towns throughout Vermont approved nonbinding resolutions calling on their state legislature to implement instant runoffs. Alaska will hold a statewide referendum on IRV this fall.

Ireland and Australia, among other places, have used IRV for years, and the momentum clearly is building for it in the United States. It's long past time for New Jersey to give serious consideration to adopting the system as well. The biggest drawback to a changeover is technological; IRV won't work with old-fashioned lever machines, such as those used in Mercer County, and even adapting it to the new optical-scan and touch-screen equipment that's coming into use elsewhere poses some problems. Still, as more and more U.S. jurisdictions embrace the system, the technological solutions will follow.

IRV's advantages are manifest. It ensures that no candidate is elected with less than a majority of the total vote -- and it does this without the necessity of pitting the two top vote-getters against each other in a runoff that's expensive and typically draws a relatively low turnout. It allows third-party and independent candidates -- Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan in the 2000 presidential election come to mind -- to run without the stigma of being "spoilers," and allows citizens to vote for such candidates without the guilty feeling that they are helping elect the person they least want to see in office.

With IRV, voters list the candidates in the order of their preference. In the first round of counting, if any contender receives a majority of votes, that candidate is declared the winner outright. If not, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and the votes of all the people who voted for him or her are distributed to their second choice. If still no candidate has a majority, the count continues. The candidate with the next fewest votes is eliminated, and all the people who voted for that person have their votes distributed to their next choice. This time, it's conceivable that some voters' first and second choices will have bitten the dust. Their votes then will go to their third choice. The process continues until one candidate has more than half the votes.

IRV would work well in elections like Trenton's upcoming City Council competition, which is likely to attract numerous candidates in some of the ward races and an even greater number for the three seats that will be filled by at-large voting. But it also would be a blessing in New Jersey statewide elections that draw crowded fields and do not provide for a runoff, e.g. gubernatorial and U.S. Senate primaries. Here the possibility exists of a winner emerging with less than a majority -- perhaps someone favored by a small but dedicated fringe of the electorate. Democracy is not well served in such situations.Some argue that IRV is too complicated for voters to understand. That's an insult to the voters; besides, compared to a Florida butterfly ballot, the system is simplicity itself. Instant runoff voting equals better elections.

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Copyright 2002 The Center for Voting and Democracy
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