Election method will be first for Oregon
Portland State will use instant runoff voting to determine the winners in student elections

By Matt Petrie
Published February 22nd 2006 in The Daily Vanguard
To sort out the winner between the three candidates for student government's top offices, Portland State is turning to a high-tech voting method this March called "instant runoff voting," or IRV.

Under the IRV model, rather than vote for a single candidate or group of candidates, voters rank candidates in order of preference.

Then the computers come in. Voters' first choices are tallied. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the candidate who received the lowest number of votes is eliminated. The votes of the constituents who voted for that candidate are then redistributed among those voters' second choices on the ballot. The process continues until more than 50 percent of the votes fall under one candidate.

To put it simply, if your candidate does not win, your vote goes instead to your second choice, and so on.

Both Reed College and Lewis and Clark College use the instant runoff model for their student elections, but Portland State would become the first public university - and the first public institution - in Oregon to use the method.

Portland State students approved an amendment to the Associated Students of Portland State University constitution in the general election last March requiring elections for president, vice president and Student Fee Committee chair to be conducted using the IRV method.

When the deadline to file for candidacy arrived Feb. 1, it appeared that Portland State's voting experiment would have to wait. Only two candidates filed for the president and vice president and SFC chair tickets, so no instant runoff would be necessary.

All that changed when the Student Elections Board approved a third set of candidates Monday night. Mario Campbell and Mayela Herrera, candidates for president and vice president, respectively, filed for candidacy under late registration rules.

Campbell said some have reacted negatively to their decision, accusing them of running not because they care about campus issues, but to promote and utilize the IRV process. Both said, however, that IRV was not a factor in their decision to run.

"It just makes us excited that others are excited that this is going to happen," Herrara said.

Proponents of IRV tout it as an antidote to third-party "spoiler" candidates. Situations like Ralph Nader's 2000 presidential bid are often mentioned in arguments in support of the IRV system. If two like-minded candidates run against each other under the old-fashioned system, the argument goes, they could split the majority vote, causing another candidate to win despite not receiving 50 percent of the vote.

"IRV enables more candidates to run because the spoiler effect is gone," said student government web developer Tony Rasmussen. "IRV is going to promise us an election that elects candidates with a plurality of votes."

A self-described "elections advocate," Rasmussen is perhaps IRV's biggest promoter at Portland State. He was one of the IRV amendment's two sponsors while serving as ASPSU communications director last year. This year, he is involved in developing the computer program for tabulating the instant runoff results.

Rasmussen said that he became concerned with the voting model last year when several people mentioned to him that they would have run for office, but were afraid of harming ideologically similar candidates' chances at victory. He began researching other types of voting models, and became convinced that IRV was the solution to Portland State's dearth of candidates.

Rather than just count votes, IRV measures the electorate's "ideological preferences," Rasmussen said.

Portland State's online election system is undergoing significant refurbishing to accommodate the new instant runoff process. The elections software is actually a modified version of Portland State's web survey program, with some beefed-up security and some new programming to do the necessary calculations for tabulating instant runoff results.

"IRV requires computers, but the math is simple," Rasmussen said.

Although instant runoff may be new to PSU, the system has been used for elections in other countries for years. Australia has used IRV to elect its House of Representatives since 1949. Ireland has used it for presidential elections since 1922. San Francisco is the only U.S. governmental body to use instant runoff, although several states have considered passing legislation to create instant runoff systems for elections. In Oregon, an IRV bill was introduced in the House during the 2005 session, but never made it to a vote.

Several non-partisan organizations have arisen to promote the use of IRV in the United States, such as the Washington D.C.-based Center for Voting and Democracy, whose web site, FairVote.org, documents and promotes uses of instant runoff voting. Portland State is already listed on FairVote.org as a place where IRV elections are held.