Instant runoff voting advances
Published March 10th 2006 in The Times of Trenton (NJ)
Trenton, N.J., a city of 80,000-plus population on the Delaware River, will elect a mayor in May. Four candidates are expected to be on the ballot.

Burlington, Vt., a city of about 40,000 population on Lake Champlain, elected a mayor Tuesday. Five candidates were on the ballot.

Come May, in Trenton, if no candidate receives a majority of 50 percent of the votes plus one, a runoff election will be held the following month between the top two vote-getters. The two finalists will have to resume the stress of campaigning. The extra election will cost thousands of dollars. And the voter turnout is virtually certain to be smaller than it was the first time; some of the voters may not even be the same people.

In Burlington, on Tuesday, even though no candidate received a majority of the votes in the first count, the voting system that was in use there incorporated an "instant runoff" that enabled one of the five candidates to receive a majority vote on a subsequent tally. There was no need for a costly and anticlimactic second election.

Burlington is the first city in the United States to have chosen a mayor by instant runoff voting (IRV), and the first jurisdiction in the eastern United States to use the system. San Francisco has used IRV to elect members of its board of supervisors, and, abroad, the mayor of London, the president of Ireland and members of the Australian parliament are among the political leaders chosen in this manner.

In an IRV election, voters are given the option of ranking the candidates in order of choice -- first, second, third and so on. If one candidate receives a majority of first preferences, that person is elected. However, if no one is the first choice of at least half the voters plus one, the re-tabulation begins. The candidate with the fewest first preferences is eliminated, and the second choices on his or her ballots are distributed to the remaining candidates. This process of eliminating candidates and re-tabulating the votes continues until just two finalists remain. Whichever one has the most votes is the winner.

IRV is clean, quick, cost-effective and democratic, and is superior in every way to conventional runoff-type elections. But its virtues don't end there.

Many elections in New Jersey and the United States provide for no runoff process at all. Victory simply is awarded to the candidate with the largest numerical vote count, whether it is a majority of the total vote or not. In a large field of candidates, the winner can and sometimes does emerge with as little as 30, 25, or even 20 percent of the total votes. That's an affront to the bedrock democratic principle of majority rule.

And it allows outcomes to be distorted by the "spoiler" effect. In 2000, Ralph Nader ran for president as a third-party candidate, and his candidacy took critical and potentially winning votes from Democrat Al Gore. The most celebrated previous spoiler election was in 1912, when ex-President Theodore Roosevelt abandoned the Republican Party, ran as a Progressive and drew enough GOP votes from incumbent President William Howard Taft to throw the presidency to New Jersey Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

With IRV, however, third-party candidates can run -- and their supporters can vote for them -- in good conscience, knowing that by exercising their free choice they won't help bring about the election of the candidate they least admire.

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Assemblyman Bill Baroni, D-Hamilton, has sponsored a bill, AJR 57, for a formal study of IRV in New Jersey. He says he may visit Burlington to learn firsthand about the city's experience with the system. He and Ingrid Reed, director of the New Jersey Project at Rutgers' Eagleton Institute of Politics, are prominent among those who believe IRV could greatly strengthen New Jersey's electoral process -- and that the time has come to seriously consider adopting it, now that federal HAVA (Help America Vote Act) funds are available to states to upgrade voting equipment.

There's no partisan reason to embrace or reject IRV. Eliminating spoiler candidacies is advantageous to both major parties. Facilitating majority rule is basic democracy. The Legislature should approve Mr. Baroni's bill -- and find out for itself how beneficial the change would be.