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Student Life

Instant Runoffs
By Yoni Cohen
October 1, 2002

"I figured that freshman elections would not be the petty popularity contest that is so often prevalent in high school," wrote Washington University freshman Corey Schneider in a recent column. Perhaps they were. Perhaps they weren't. But Corey and 32 other students lost elections to individuals who...were losers themselves. In each of the five races, many more students voted against the candidate who won than voted for him or her. A presidential candidate won with only 22 percent of votes cast, an internal vice-president with but 30 percent, an external vice-president with just 25 percent, a treasurer with an election-low 20 percent, and a secretary with merely 31 percent.

Given the large numbers of students who ran, these results were to be expected. Yet they are also to be deplored. It could hardly be argued that the candidates elected "represent" the freshman class. At best, they reveal the preference of but a third of all freshmen, at worst a fifth. Today's freshman class officers do not have a popular mandate. They were likely elected by friends on their freshman floors rather than by classmates throughout their WU community.

What then is to be done? Should Student Union limit the number of candidates eligible to run? No. Should SU consider more significant electoral reform? Yes. Specifically, I suggest SU (and the United States as a whole -- see below) adopt "instant runoff voting." Employed in Australia, Ireland, and the American cities of San Francisco, Calif., and Cambridge, Mass., instant runoff voting is a system under which voters rank candidates in order of preference. In the case no single candidate receives a majority, the individual with the lowest level of support would be eliminated and those who voted for him or her would have their second preference counted as if it were their first. Such a process would continue until one candidate received majority support. Confused? Read on.

Consider the 2000 Presidential Election. Under instant runoff voting, each citizen votes not for a single candidate, but for a range of candidates, ranking Ralph Nader, George Bush and Al Gore in order of preference (e.g. Nader 1, Gore 2, Bush 3). Imagine a scenario under which Al Gore then receives 47 percent of the vote, George Bush 48 percent and Ralph Nader 5 percent. No candidate has a majority. Ralph Nader, the least popular among them, is subsequently dropped from consideration. In the ensuing Gore-Bush "instant runoff," all those who designated Nader their first choice then have their second choice counted. In this case, Gore triumphs with 52 percent to Bush's 48 percent (the majority of Nader supporters would likely have preferred Gore to Bush).

My proposed reform, however, would not benefit Democrats more than Republicans, nor Republicans more than Democrats. Indeed, it is utterly devoid of ideology. In 1992, ranking of candidates would likely have led to Bill Clinton's defeat at the hands of the elder George Bush (remember that Bill Clinton was elected with less than 40 percent of the vote, the majority of Ross Perot's supporters would likely have preferred Bush to Clinton).

Rather, instant runoff voting would benefit you, your classmates, and the public at large. Democracy is based upon the principle of choice. Recent freshman class elections, however, were more consistent with the reality of chaos. America's elections for local, state and national office are characterized by constraint; two parties dominate and third parties flounder. Any attempt to enter the political spectrum on the left (e.g. Nader) undermines Democrats and facilitates election of Republicans. Likewise, any attempt to enter on the right (e.g. Perot) undermines Republicans and enables election of Democrats. The result is predictable, few third-party candidates have tried and fewer have succeeded. Nor is any attempt to vote to the left of the Democrats or to the right of the Republicans fruitful: in the first case the vote helps Republicans and in the second Democrats. The result again is unsurprising, few individuals vote for third-part candidates.

Herein lies the potential of instant runoff voting -- but also its central barrier. Instant runoff voting would broaden democracy by benefiting third parties of all shapes and colors, be they Greens, Libertarians, Socialists or Fascists, at the expense of Democrats and Republicans. As such, while you and I will likely embrace the proposed reform, our friends in positions of power in Washington may not. But how about our friends at Student Union?

No doubt those who were elected two weeks ago to Freshman Class Council, Justin Huebener, Shuddie Ray, Sagar Ravi, Long Long and Sally Smith, have an incentive to hold onto power. Ditto for those elected to the senate and for those on SU's executive board. I believe, however, that for a range of reasons -- few desire office the following year, students campaign as individuals, not as ideologues, etc. -- instant runoff voting is a necessary and realistic reform for student government. Other campuses' seem to think so. Recently, Vassar College, Stanford University, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Maryland, the University of Washington and Whitman College adopted the proposed reform.

In the national case of two/too few candidates, instant runoff voting would empower third parties and guarantee real choice. In the local case of too many candidates, instant runoff voting would enable students to support, albeit to different degrees, multiple candidates on a single ballot and in so doing secure real representation.

Student Life is the student newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis.

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