If voters had the option of ranking candidates on the ballot, instead of selecting just one, then Al Gore might have been elected president in 2000 and Slade Gorton could still be a U.S. senator.
Supporters of a Pierce County Charter amendment on the Nov. 7 ballot say those are examples of how "instant runoff voting," or IRV, would work.
The system of ranking candidates is used in Burlington, Vt., and San Francisco, and is on the ballot in Minneapolis, Minn.; Oakland, Calif.; and Davis, Calif. Backers are hoping Pierce County voters will give it a try.
Amendment 3, proposed by the Charter Review Commission, would make 10 elected positions in Pierce County decided by instant runoff voting.
Here's how it works: Instead of having a primary to nominate candidates and a general election to decide between finalists, Pierce County would have one election only, in November. Voters could pick one candidate regardless of party, but they would have the option of giving another candidate their second preference and a third candidate their third preference until a majority winner emerges.
Backers say IRV can cure an ailing democracy and distance Pierce County as far as legally possible from the unpopular pick-a-party primary. Amendment 3 moves "our election system from a system that voters don't like to one that voters who have used it like," said Kelly Haughton, a Tacoma business executive who pushed for IRV earlier this year when he served on the 21-member Charter Review Commission.
Critics say IRV is costly, confusing and ill-timed.
"We don't want to be the guinea pig," said Executive John Ladenburg, county government CEO.
Legal issues loom. Pierce County's 1980 home-rule charter allows the county to arrange its government any way it wants as long as it isnÕt prohibited by state law. County prosecutors who advised the Charter Review Commission cite that latitude as the reason the county might adopt IRV.
Katie Blinn, assistant director of elections for the Secretary of State's Office, said IRV moves the county and the state into "uncharted territory." The charter sets up how county government is structured, she said. "What has never been tested is whether the charter can establish how county officers are elected, how the person attains office."
If voters pass IRV and someone files a lawsuit against it, Blinn said, then "it will be the courts that determine the extent to which a county charter can deviate from state law in how county officers are elected."
STILL HAVE TO PICK A PARTY
Efforts to institute IRV were under way before the Charter Review Commission took it up.
Rich Anderson-Connolly, a professor of sociology and international political economy at the University of Puget Sound, is a member of the Yes-on-3 campaign. In 2004 he pressed Initiative 318, which would have established IRV statewide. In 2005, he lobbied the City of Tacoma's charter review panel to institute IRV, but the idea was later scuttled.
Pierce County's charter review process, required at least every 10 years, afforded a timely opportunity to put IRV to county voters, Anderson-Connelly said.
Amendment 3 would replace the pick-a-party system for certain Pierce County offices: the executive, the seven-member council, the auditor and the assessor-treasurer. It would not apply to the prosecutor or county judges.
Voters would still have to pick a party in the primary in order to vote in congressional and state elections. All candidates who collect at least 25 signatures would be on one ballot, although the parties could decide who could run as a party member.
The county would be required to set up IRV by July 2008.
WOULD IT REDUCE NEGATIVE ADS?
Backers say IRV eliminates a system of plurality under which officials can be elected with less than 50 percent of the vote, casting doubt on whether the most preferred candidate was elected.
With the option to rank candidates under IRV, Anderson-Connelly said, the role of minor parties grows in elections and candidates are forced to take clearer stands on issues.
"People have to stake out ideologies," he said. "You can't just have two people meeting at the middle."
And IRV would reduce negative campaigning, he said, because candidates will want their opponents' voters to rank them No. 2.
If IRV passes, Anderson-Connelly said, backers will ask the Legislature to allow Pierce County to use the system for the prosecuting attorney and judges. They will also seek to give other governments in the county the option to use it, he said.
Caleb Kleppner is a founding partner of Election Solutions of New Haven, Conn. He worked on IRV systems in San Francisco and Burlington, Vt., and said IRV would change the outcome of elections.
While it can't be conclusively proved, Kleppner said, Gore probably would have won the presidency in 2000 under IRV. That's because voters who cast their ballots for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader likely would have ranked Gore as their second choice.
When "you win the popular vote by 500,000 and you lose Florida by 537 votes with a third-party candidate widely seen to draw far more (votes) from you than the Republican, it's a safe bet that Gore would have won," Kleppner said.
Another example, Kleppner said, is that Gorton probably would "still be a U.S. senator and a Republican (Dino Rossi) would probably be governor of Washington, since in both of those races, the Democrat barely won in races where the Libertarian candidate received many times the margin of victory."
Kleppner added that while IRV promotes participation by the minor parties, their candidates "don't win that often under IRV" and that "the person who appeals to the public is the one who wins."
$3 MILLION ESTIMATE DEBATED
Representatives of the local Democratic and Republican parties oppose Amendment 3. During one of the Charter Review Commission's hearings earlier this year, Deryl McCarty, the local GOP chairman, said Washington's much-criticized 2004 gubernatorial race exposed flaws in the current election system. Why adopt a new one in Pierce County?
"We don't feel we can add complexity when trust is already in question," he said. "What we have is working."
Other critics say the amendment would increase the cost of carrying out elections.
Earlier this month, County Executive Ladenburg proposed setting aside $2 million in the 2007 budget to cover the potential cost of several of the proposed charter amendments, especially IRV.
Auditor Pat McCarthy has estimated IRV could cost nearly $3 million to implement. That includes developing software, covering additional printing costs, hiring extra staff and training staff, drafting rules and procedures, and educating voters.
Voter education accounts for $2 million of the nearly $3 million estimate provided by McCarthy.
Backers of IRV say critics overstate its complexity and potential cost.
"We have less than 400,000 voters in Pierce County," Haughton said. "Two million dollars is over $5 per voter. The entire primary election in 2005 (cost) $650,000. (McCarthy) wants to spend three times as much money as she spent on the entire primary on voter education?"
McCarthy said Sequoia Voting Systems, the vendor that provides the county's vote-tabulating equipment, is working on software to read IRV ballots. However, the software would need to receive state and national certification before it could be used, she said.
She said the county also would need to create two ballots Š one for county offices elected under IRV and another for the county prosecutor, judges, and state and congressional offices.
The time isn't right for IRV, McCarthy said.
"We need stability, we need to build voter confidence," she said.
However, McCarthy said, if voters approve Amendment 3, then her office would do everything it could to make it the best IRV system in the country.
Aaron Corvin: 253-552-7058
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