84% in Takoma Park: Lessons from a landslide win
Lawnsigns from the Takoma Park campaignOn November 8, 2005, voters in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Takoma Park, Maryland voted 84%-16% to adopt instant runoff voting (IRV) for city elections, winning 1,992 to 390. A majority of the council has pledged to implement IRV for the next city elections for mayor and city council in 2007.

What made this campaign so successful? We wanted to share a few thoughts for would-be reformers. In brief, they are: try to take the issue of costs off the table; gain support of local leaders; make sure it speaks to the elections one is seeking to change; and don't oversell the reform.

  1. Negating issue of costs: IRV in Takoma Park will not save the city money, as it will replace one-round plurality voting rather than a two-round system. But at the same time, implementation will be very inexpensive. That was due to first persuading the city to move away from the county-owned touchscreen voting machines and implement a paper ballot system. That change saved the city money and avoided paperless voting, but it also made it easy to do a hand-count of ballots for IRV. Costs therefore were barely discussed in the campaign.

  2. Strong support among city leaders: Because FairVote's executive director Rob Richie and two of FairVote's board members have lived in Takoma Park for years, they knew many city leaders. Richie worked with the council and city clerk in moving to paper ballots, and was able to talk about IRV with most of the city council and other civic leaders, including the two county commissioners living in the city. Ultimately the measure was placed on the ballot by a unanimous vote, and nearly everyone of consequence in city politics and civic life (PTA presidents, religious leaders, etc) was publicly supportive or at least neutral.

  3. Pitching the right message to speak to the electorate: Like many cities, Takoma Park is open to new ideas. Many of its voters are well-versed in debates over "spoilers." They also have a one-round system of voting that under the old plurality system had allowed someone to win with less than a majority of the vote. It was valuable to focus on what IRV would do for the city: accommodate the potential of voter choice to generate a majority winner.

  4. An energetic campaign: The costs of the campaign were low -- less than $1,400 -- but energy level was high.. The campaign had a well-designed postcard that went to likely voters and a similar literature piece dropped at nearly every home in the city by volunteers. Volunteers engaged in lots of conversations at the city gatherings and at the Metro stop and wrote good pieces in local publications. At least two people covered the polling place all Election Day.
Putting these together led to an overwhelming win. If you see the right conditions in your community, please contact us for assistance!