Instant runoff? It worked for Kermit

By Tom Lyons
Published November 8th 2007 in Sarasota Herald Tribune

Although it was a low-profile issue in the voting on Tuesday, I'm tickled by the approval of one Sarasota ballot item.

I'd think voters in Bradenton might want to take note of it, in part because of their unfinished mayoral election.

Mayor Wayne Poston and former mayor Bill Evers ended up in a runoff after that three-candidate race, so it will take another vote, in three weeks, to pick the winner.

Voters had no way to settle it all on Tuesday. But they would have if they had an "instant runoff" system of the kind Sarasota voters just approved for Sarasota City Commission elections.

Sarasota voters went for it by a 3-1 ratio, which makes me all the more glad.

Instant runoff voting is an idea that seems sensible for any multi-candidate race. It is now used in several cities around the nation, but it is still so rare that I thought more voters would balk simply because few have had experience with it.

I haven't, unless you count a Web site simulation years ago that sold me when I saw a popular frog named Kermit win in a crowded field that included Miss Piggy.

Kermit was well liked, and so were several other friendly Muppet creatures, to a lesser degree. But Miss Piggy? Not so much. Most simulated voters saw her as an awful choice.

Still, maybe because of sex appeal, she had a devoted following, a minority of close to 30 percent of voters.

So if that Muppet election allowed no runoffs. Miss Piggy would have won because several mainstreamish candidates split the vote with Kermit. Miss Piggy took first place in the first round, just ahead of Kermit.

But the system allows you to rank your choices, if you want to. If your first choice candidate is eliminated, your vote goes to your second choice, if you made one. If your second choice also falls, your vote goes to your third-place choice, and so on.

That way, a candidate most voters can't stand will lose. And so the widely liked Kermit won overwhelmingly when the system whittled the choice down to him and Miss Piggy.

And unlike conventional runoffs held weeks later, it all took place on one day, with one visit to the polls, and one ballot. In conventional runoffs held weeks later, which are expensive, the norm is that far fewer voters show up.

Sarasota can't really use the instant runoff system, not until the state certifies election software for it. I have no idea if any of us will live to see that happen.

But the vote sends a good message in a state that finds runoffs so bothersome that they are banned in some elections, allowing some races to be won by candidates who get no more votes than Miss Piggy did.