A better way to vote

Published April 19th 2007 in USA Today
"The majority rules!" is one of the most frequently heard battle cries of American politics, but the reality is otherwise: Every year, in scores of state and local elections, no candidate wins a majority. That results in either costly runoffs or "winners" who in fact have been rejected by as many as two-thirds of the voters in a multi-candidate field.

Minnesota, for example, hasn't had a governor elected with majority support since 1994 (Jesse Ventura won with only 37% of the vote). North Carolina spent $3.5 million of the taxpayers' money in 2004 on a runoff to determine the Democratic nominee for superintendent of public instruction; just 3% of the voters participated.

There is, however, a worthwhile solution that can guarantee the majority really does rule. It's called instant-runoff voting, and over the past five years it has been adopted by communities as large as Minneapolis and San Francisco and as small as Ferndale, Mich., and Takoma Park, Md. Now, several more states and cities are experimenting with the idea or considering it. Sarasota, Fla., will vote on it in November. North Carolina has a pilot program for 20 municipalities to try instant-runoff voting in local elections and to use it for certain statewide elections.

In an instant-runoff election, instead of just placing an "X" beside the name of one candidate, voters have the option of ranking the candidates in order of preference: 1, 2, 3, etc. If no one gets 50% of the first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated from the count and the second-choice votes on those ballots are distributed among the remaining names. The process continues until one candidate with true majority support emerges.

Among the advantages of this system:

*Costly runoffs, in which voter turnout is often anemic, are avoided.

*Third-party or "spoiler" candidates finishing toward the bottom of the field are less likely to destroy a mainstream candidate's chances.

*Winners can claim a greater mandate from the voters.

*Campaigns can be more civil because candidates looking for second-choice as well as first-choice votes don't want to alienate a rival's supporters.

In most places, once the idea has been seriously advanced and explained, it has gained wide support. Some wary public officials warn of the cost $1 million or more in big jurisdictions of reprogramming voting machines or buying new ones to accept preferential votes. But San Francisco, for example, quickly recovered what it spent for that purpose by not having to hold a separate runoff election in 2004.

If the nation really believes in "majority rule," instant-runoff voting is one way to get closer to it.