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University of Maryland Diamondback

A better way to vote
By Eric Swalwell
April 18, 2003

For the first time ever, earlier this week, university students expressed a preference in a SGA election, avoided a costly runoff and demonstrated high turnout (by university standards). While three different parties ended up winning the Executive Board elections, because of instant-runoff voting (IRV), the real winner was democracy.

In fact, this election had national implications for the university. With this past election, Maryland became the biggest university in the United States to use IRV to elect its student leaders. Rob Richie, Director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a Washington-area think tank, said, "This is a victory for the students at the University of Maryland and democracy advocates nationwide." His sentiments were also shared by many e-mails I received from IRV enthusiasts throughout the country who heard about the university's success via listservs.

However, as for the actual election, this year students exercised democratic freewill like never before. Here's why:

Before IRV was passed last year and implemented for this year, executive candidates only had to break a 40 percent threshold to gain office. This was problematic in two ways: One, it was not majority-rule, and two, if no one received 40 percent, a second runoff election was held. As alluded to above, runoffs cost more money and historically significantly decrease voter turnout. In 2001, when Angela Lagdameo and Jeremy Bates beat Micah Coleman and Ariel Oxman in a runoff, only half the number of voters from the first election turned out. Fortunately, these mistakes have been corrected.

This year, the rules have changed. Student Government Association candidates needed to reach 50 percent plus one vote to gain office. Once this wasn't realized, an "instant runoff was held." With five candidates this year, voters were asked to rank their choices 1-5. Once the votes were tallied, the computer looked for first-ranked votes. No one came close to 50 percent so the lowest vote-getter was "kicked out," and second-choice votes were transferred to the remaining four candidates. Again, no one received over 50 percent, and this continued until only two candidates remained. With only two candidates left, someone must break the 50 percent threshold. For the presidential race this happened when Wednesday's winner received 52 percent of the vote in the final transfer.

Now, some may ask, how was IRV more democratic if someone who finished fourth in the first tally was able to finish first after all of the votes were transferred? The answer is simple: If someone finished fourth on the first ballot, and first on the fourth, through rankings he or she was essentially the most preferred candidate of the four. The logic is clear. From the first ballot counted, no candidate was even close to 50 percent. In fact, the first-place candidate was only ahead of the fourth-place candidate by less than 300 votes and did not break 25 percent. And slowly, as candidates were eliminated, the fourth-place person continually crept closer to first because he had the most second choice votes; he the most preferred.

While IRV was successful in eliminating runoffs, being efficient and contributing to a high voter turnout, there are still issues to address. In order for IRV to be truly democratic, the voters must be fully educated on the system. Unfortunately, that did not happen this year. It was IRV's first year, and understandably, the election board was still learning what it all meant. But because of this, the most important lesson of IRV was lost: If you, the voter, have any preference at all between the candidates, it is in your best interest that you rank. Sadly, what happened this year was voters were not ranking beyond their first choice. There is no strategic advantage to this. The other candidates only receive the second choice votes if your candidate is eliminated.

Fortunately, IRV will be used again next year, the following year and so on. For the first year, by all standards, the election has to be considered a success. As educational efforts improve and the elections committee becomes more familiar with the process, students will feel more comfortable and maximize their democracy.

Eric Swalwell is a senior government and politics major. He can reached at [email protected]


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