Eric Olson's Testimony on Maryland Instant Runoff Voting Bill

Testimony before the Maryland Senate Economic & Environmental Affairs Committee
February 15, 2001

Thank you, Chairman Blount, and members of the committee for holding this hearing on legislation to implement instant runoff voting in the state of Maryland.  Thank you, Senator Pinsky, for bringing this issue of democratic reform to the attention of the state senate.

I am deputy director of the Center for Voting and Democracy.  Some of you may also know me as a city councilman from College Park, but I am not here in that capacity and none of my remarks should be associated with the city.  The Center for Voting and Democracy is a national nonpartisan, non-profit organization, based in Takoma Park that studies elections and advocates reforms to promote increased participation and fair representation.  We have particular expertise in instant runoff voting and forms of proportional representation, as well as areas such as voting rights, and electoral competitiveness.

I will outline a number of reasons that instant runoff voting is an improvement over the current system of plurality election, as well as provide additional information to familiarize the committee with the system.

What is Instant Runoff Voting?

Instant Runoff Voting is an election system that allows voters to rank candidates in order of their choice.  It simulates a traditional runoff – where if no candidate receives a majority of votes on the first round, a second election is held between the top two vote-getters – but instant runoff voting accomplishes the result “instantly” without the need for a second election.  The system is recommended by Robert’s Rules of Order, where it is called “preferential” voting.

Many states and localities use two-round runoffs to ensure that winning candidates have majority support, as well as to prevent the “spoiler” effect – where votes split between several candidates and a candidate without much support can eke out a plurality win.

Two-round runoff elections have downsides, however.  1. Candidates must raise and spend more money in two rounds, which runs counter to the goals of campaign finance reformers; 2. Election administrators must conduct a second election, finding poll workers, and taking on additional costs; and 3. Voter turnout is often lower at the second, runoff election.  Thus, a faster, cheaper, better way than two-round runoffs is through “instant” runoff voting – it provides all the benefits, but none of the downsides of two-round runoffs. 

Here’s how instant runoff voting works.  Voters cast their ballot for their favorite candidate, but also indicate who would be their choice in a runoff election if their candidate does not make it.  They can do this by simply ranking candidates in order of their preference.  If no candidate receives a majority of votes (looking only at first choices), the last-place finisher is eliminated.  The ballots cast for that candidate are then recounted for the next choice candidate on the ballot.  If a candidate now has a majority, the election is over.  If not, the process of eliminating the weakest candidates and recounting their votes for their next choice continues until there is a majority winner.

This simple system was invented over a century ago by an American professor at MIT.  It is now used around the world, including in elections for president of the Republic of Ireland, for the Mayor of London and for the lower house in Australia. It recently received unanimous support from a charter commission in Austin, Texas and from a Vermont commission.  Vermont legislation to enact instant runoff voting for statewide elections has been endorsed by the state’s governor and Vermont branches of the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and the state Grange, among others.  Legislation has been debated in several states in the last two years since the idea gained national circulation; one bill passed the state senate in New Mexico last year, while a ballot measure to enact instant runoff voting for nearly all state and federal elections in the state has qualified for the 2002 ballot in Alaska.  City and county measures to amend charters to allow instant runoff voting have passed in the last three years in such California localities as Santa Clara County, Oakland and San Leandro and in Vancouver, Washington.

Why Implement Instant Runoff Voting?

Now is an especially advantageous time to implement instant runoff voting in Maryland.  Previously in the state, most general elections were held simply between Democrats and Republicans.  However, we now have a number of recognized political parties in the state, including the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, the Reform Party, and the Constitution Party.  Perhaps none of these is as invigorated to run candidates for office in 2002 as the Greens, after Ralph Nader’s candidacy for President in 2000.  When multiple candidates run, the likelihood of a plurality win increases, and the results can look more like a roll of the dice than a coherent democracy.  When a candidate wins with less than 50 percent of the vote, it means that more voters will have cast ballots against, rather than for, the winner, and that does not create much of a mandate.

As we saw in the 2000 presidential race, there were a number of states where neither George W. Bush nor Al Gore received a majority of the vote.  Minor party candidates Ralph Nader and Patrick Buchanan won enough votes in a number of states to tip the balance toward the major party candidate with views most dissimilar to theirs.  Nader’s influence, of course, was felt most in Florida.

If Maryland conducts its elections under the current plurality rules in 2002, there is no telling whether the majority of voters will see their candidate lose because a third party on the ballot may “spoil” the election.

Minor parties ought to be able to participate in electoral politics and enter their ideas into the political debate, without being relegated to a “spoiler” role.  As recognized parties in the state, they have every right to campaign and compete for votes, but they should not have an exaggerated power of thwarting the will of the majority through a spoiler role.  The General Assembly should ensure that the state has an election process that recognizes and accommodates third party candidacies.  Many people would simply wish that minor parties would disappear, but as more voters, particularly the young, register as independents and as more people express a willingness to vote for third parties, they are not going away any time soon.  Adopting instant runoff voting would allow them to compete without producing undemocratic outcomes. 

Another advantage of instant runoff voting is that it creates incentives for candidates to talk about the positive things they plan to do rather than engage in negative campaigning.  If a candidate is not only seeking first choice votes, but also competing for the second choices of other candidates’ supporters, the candidate will not have an incentive to mudsling opponents.  Our current, plurality-takes-all rules actually encourage negative campaigning, because it is far easier to raise questions about one’s opponent and drive people away from the polls than to bring new voters out to the polls.

Yet another positive aspect of instant runoff voting is that there are fewer “wasted votes” – votes that do not count toward electing anybody.  Instant runoff voting ensures that the candidate with the most consensus support among voters will win.  Another important point is that instant runoff voting could be used in party primary elections, since in many districts that is where the election is in effect, determined.  (In a one-party Massachusetts congressional district in 1998, for instance, the primary was won with only 23 percent of the vote).  Parties ought to be interested in using it in primaries because it means they will emerge with their strongest candidate rather than the person who “wins” in a crowded primary with a low plurality.  Indeed, in the early part of the 20th Century, Maryland – and other states – did use instant runoff voting for its primaries, although the primary election system was different in several respects from what we know today as primaries.

At the Center for Voting and Democracy, we also believe that instant runoff voting would have a positive effect on voter turnout.  Currently many would-be voters feel like they are left with few choices and subsequently stay away from the polls.  By allowing voters to rank candidates and express more with their vote, it helps empower the voter, and brings more people into the decision-making process.

Voting Machines

Another reason that this is a good time to be considering instant runoff voting is that the state is looking at upgrading its voting equipment and the federal government is likely to offer grants to upgrade voting machines.  Secretary Willis’ Commission on Voting Systems and Procedures will be making recommendations to the Governor shortly, and an upgrade of voting machines should result in the capacity to handle ranked ballots across the state.  Both electronic direct recording equipment, “touchscreens,” and optical scanner machines can handle ranked ballot election systems with the proper software.  With optical scanners, ranked-order ballots can be read and results ready in a short period of time; Cambridge, Massachusetts, which uses a rank-order system to elect its city council and school committee, counts the ballots through optical scanning.

When the Request for Proposals (RFP) goes forward for any new machines in the state, we would strongly recommend inserting a specific provision that the new equipment be made compatible with ranked ballot systems of voting. All three major vendors of optical scanners have expressed that they could provide this compatibility, and we expect it would not increase the cost while giving Maryland maximum flexibility in choosing future voting systems.  Touchscreens are electronic, ATM-style machines, and these are easily able to handle ranked-ballot systems – vendors of these machines have bid on providing London, as well as the Republic of Ireland, with machines for ranked ballot elections.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify.  Please do not hesitate to contact us at the Center for Voting and Democracy as you consider reforming our election system.