Finally, A Useful Election Reform

By John Hood (President of the John Locke Foundation)
Published October 9th 2007 in The Leland Tribune
When it comes to election “reforms,” call me skeptical. The scare quotes are there for a reason. I find that most election-reform agendas are either blatantly partisan or based on a model of political behavior that is unrealistic and leftist (but I repeat myself).

But when it comes to instant-runoff voting (IRV), call me evangelical. I have long thought runoffs in local elections to be a costly waste of time, drawing only a subset of an already small pool of voters interested in the average race. You can end up with important decisions being made by local politicians who garnered the support of fewer than 10 percent of those affected by the decisions. Advocates of runoffs say they are actually designed to increase political consensus – because they force someone with less than majority support to run again vs. a single opponent – but because turnout drops off steeply, the practical effect is often contrary to the intention.

The problem is called unintended consequences. They abound.

This year, Cary voters will test an IRV system that could spread to other North Carolina communities in the coming years. On their ballots, Cary voters in races with three or more candidates will find not a single column of names and adjoining bubbles to mark their preferred individual, but instead an invitation to rank the candidates according to preference. If no candidate achieves the majority of votes required to be elected outright, then the results are re-tallied by eliminating the bottom candidate and allocating the second choices of those whose first choice has been eliminated.

Essentially, IRV transfers power from politicians and government officials to voters. Instead of being required to limit the amount of information they provide on Election Day, and then to report back to polling places at a future date to express themselves again, voters can now make their full preferences known immediately and at lower cost.

IRV wasn’t an easy sell in Cary or in Hendersonville, which will run another test of the system in November. Some local officials feared that voters might need more time to learn about instant runoffs. But given the profile of local elections in most communities, I doubt that extra time would have translated into significantly higher public knowledge of the proposed system. The best thing to do was just to try it out.

Other governments will be watching closely. The state board of elections is going to survey voters and candidates after the Cary and Hendersonville votes to see what participants think, then compile a report for public consumption. My guess is that while some may find the process confusing a first, or oppose change just for the sake of opposing change, most will come around. The only people who truly have a soft spot for these low-turnout runoffs are political junkies, for whom elections are fun, and those who make money from multiple elections, such as some campaign and media folks.

Unlike most campaign-finance and election reforms that restrict speech, facilitate voter fraud, or strengthen the power of elites and the mainstream media, IRV increases the information flow, doesn't imperil honest elections, and strengthens the hand of average voters. Sounds good to me.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.