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University of Maryland Diamondback

Insta-runoff: Quick fix for a mess
By Scott Goldstein
April 17, 2003

"I may be No. 2 to The Diamondback, but I'm No. 1 to the students!," SGA President-elect Tim Daly said yesterday within seconds after election results were announced.

Well, not exactly.

Daly, who was endorsed as the No. 2 candidate by the university newspaper, needed more than 700 votes from people who didn't actually list him as their first choice for the job to win. This year's newly designed Instant-Runoff Voting ballot made that possible.

The newly implemented IRV avoided a costly and time-consuming runoff election, but it also potentially changed the outcome of at least half of the executive races.

IRV gives voters the option of ranking candidates in order of preference. If no candidate earns a majority of the votes in the first round of elections, a computer mechanism kicks in and eliminates the candidate with the least first-choice votes. For the voters who marked that losing candidate No. 1, their second-ranked candidate is counted as their vote. The process continues until a majority winner emerges.

With candidates openly admitting their hatred for one another, this SGA race was significantly more interesting than those of the past several years. The field of candidates more than doubled from last year's quiet two-man race, voter turnout was relatively high at 22 percent and the final tally exhibited strikingly close races - so close that the new IRV mechanism was key to several candidates victories. Because there were five presidential candidates, it was unlikely any one candidate would receive more than 50 percent of the vote.

But in more than one case yesterday, candidates who originally were far behind the pack ended up climbing the ranks to victory thanks to IRV. In past years, only the top two vote-getters would have survived to the next round of runoff elections.

Change Party candidate for vice president of human relations Christine Delargy, who was in fourth place after the initial count, would have been hacked from the ballot in a traditional runoff election. Instead, she slowly crept to number one after three rounds of IRV.

And Flash Party candidate for vice president of administrative affairs Yoni Warren was in first place through three rounds of IRV before Change Party's Nakiya Vasi barely edged out Warren with 50.4 percent of the vote.

In fact, after the first count, all seven Flash Party executive candidates were in first place. Three rounds later, the final winners were a hodgepodge of the Flash, TANG and Change party candidates.

SGA Vice President of Campus Affairs Eric Swalwell, who spearheaded the push for IRV in SGA elections beginning more than a year ago, hailed the elections as the "most democratic election in the history of the SGA." But he added that the SGA Elections Board could have done a better job publicizing the system and that many student voters may not have known they could rank the candidates by preference.

"I did what I could to assist them and advise them," he said. "The problem is I don't think the students all ranked [the candidates].

"As we look back on this race and we prepare for next year, I think students will become more comfortable with it and understand that IRV is the most logical, efficient way to elect somebody."

Change Party presidential candidate Aaron Kraus, who was endorsed as the No. 1 presidential candidate by The Diamondback, remained in second place through the full IRV process, but he may have benefited from a non-IRV vote. Kraus's Change Party consisted of mostly relative unknowns who could have used an extra week to campaign. In previous years, Kraus would have had one more week before a separate runoff vote to gain the few hundred votes needed to overcome Daly.

Said Swalwell: "Beyond the fact that it's historically proven that voter turnout is reduced in a runoff ... I think it's convenient for anyone to say that anyone who had another week could have won."


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