A better election alternative for King County: ranked-choice voting

By Joe Szwaja
Published September 8th 2009 in Seattle Times
Mix together eight candidates, a low-turnout summer primary, and rules that send the top two candidates to the general, no matter what. Result? A million-dollar-plus bill for holding two elections to achieve what we could accomplish with one.

Voters had to awkwardly balance the desire to vote for their favorite candidate with a guess as to whether he or she could advance to the general or whether the vote would be split among similar candidates and actually help the wrong side.

And the system amplifies big-donor influence, since two elections also increase the time candidates must spend raising money for two elections.

This is our election recipe here in King County and in the city of Seattle as well.

Fortunately, there's a cheap, inclusive and democratic alternative used internationally and now in Pierce County. It's ranked choice voting (RCV), also known as instant runoff voting

This simple system allows voters to rank candidates on the ballot in their order of preference first, second, third, etc. Voters can rank as many or as few candidates as they wish and can vote without fear that voting their true preference will help elect their least-favorite choice. If one candidate gets the majority of first choices, that candidate is elected. If no one receives a majority, the bottom candidate is eliminated; their ballots then transfer to their next choice, just as if there were a series of runoff elections.

RCV is used around the world from Australia to London and around the United States from Burlington to San Francisco. The system earns higher voter ratings than the more traditional ways we pick our elected leaders.

Its advantages are numerous.

First, RCV saves crucial tax dollars by accomplishing the twin goals of our primary and general elections narrowing down the field and electing a winner in one election. Based on 2007 data, our county would save $1.25 million each cycle by folding our two elections into one. And as Yogi Berra said, "a million here a million there, pretty soon we're talking real money."

Holding one deciding election in November also would lead to greater voter participation. Our summer primary happens when many are on vacation or not following politics. A large number of voters don't participate in the crucial narrowing function of the primary.

Historically, about twice as many voters participate in the November general election as in the primary. So half of our voters, more than 200,000 people, don't participate in the primary, and thus see only limited choices at the general election.

RCV provides incentives for more positive campaigning and fewer personal attacks. With RCV, if a candidate knows they need the second or third rankings of those outside their base to prevail, they are unlikely to go negative toward those voters' favorite candidates. This factor was noted favorably by former Gov. Mike Lowry during the public hearings of the King County Charter Review last year.

During these hearings designed to get public feedback on changes in our county charter a majority of those who spoke testified about these and other advantages of RCV. The American Political Science Association agrees with our grass roots voices that RCV is a fairer, more precise way of measuring voter preferences; so much so that they even use it in their own elections.

So take it both from the grass roots and from those who study elections for a living. We can save money, increase turnout and encourage positive campaigns by allowing our county's voters to consider adopting RCV. Tell your county councilperson to make our county elections cheaper, fairer and more positive by allowing us to vote on whether to adopt RCV.

Joe Szwaja is president of Ranked Choice Voting of Washington. He teaches at Nova High School in Seattle. For more information on Ranked Choice Voting, go to: www.rcvwa.org.

IRV Soars in Twin Cities, FairVote Corrects the Pundits on Meaning of Election Night '09
Election Day '09 was a roller-coaster for election reformers.  Instant runoff voting had a great night in Minnesota, where St. Paul voters chose to implement IRV for its city elections, and Minneapolis voters used IRV for the first time—with local media touting it as a big success. As the Star-Tribune noted in endorsing IRV for St. Paul, Tuesday’s elections give the Twin Cities a chance to show the whole state of Minnesota the benefits of adopting IRV. There were disappointments in Lowell and Pierce County too, but high-profile multi-candidate races in New Jersey and New York keep policymakers focused on ways to reform elections;  the Baltimore Sun and Miami Herald were among many newspapers publishing commentary from FairVote board member and former presidential candidate John Anderson on how IRV can mitigate the problems of plurality elections.

And as pundits try to make hay out of the national implications of Tuesday’s gubernatorial elections, Rob Richie in the Huffington Post concludes that the gubernatorial elections have little bearing on federal elections.