Instant runoff voting would improve Pierce County elections

Published September 3rd 2006 in The News Tribune (Tacoma, WA)
Pierce County Proposed Charter Amendment 3 gained statewide importance on Aug. 23 when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Washington's top-two primary.

That system, similar to the nonpartisan primary used for most elected offices in the state, was voters' reaction to the Montana-style "pick-a-party" primary first used in 2004 as a replacement for Washington's traditional blanket primary.

The voters' choice of a top-two primary in Initiative 872 was not a popular one with the political parties, which joined together in filing a lawsuit in opposition. The court rejected the top-two system for the same reason it found the blanket primary unconstitutional.

Amendment 3, which will appear on November's ballot, will give voters the chance to replace the pick-a-party primary with instant runoff voting (IRV) for county offices. Like the top-two system and the blanket primary, IRV gives voters the choice of any candidate, regardless of party.

IRV also has an answer to the legal hurdle the top-two system and the blanket primary were unable to clear. These systems failed to protect the associational rights of the political parties; the parties had no control over who decided to run on the primary ballot using their party label. Amendment 3 protects this right by letting parties control their own nominating process.

Instead of the usual low-turnout primary, IRV uses a single election in November. All parties may nominate candidates to be on the November ballot. There is also a procedure for independents to appear on the ballot.

Voters simply rank the candidates in order of preference. If a candidate receives a majority of the first-choice votes, she or he is elected. If no candidate receives a majority, the last-place candidate is eliminated and those votes are allocated to the voters' second choices. This process continues until one candidate gains a majority of votes.

Amendment 3 offers additional benefits to both the voters and political parties in Pierce County. Voters not only have their choice of candidates from any party, but are also able to rank their candidates in order of preference.

This means voters can use their choices to express their preferences without feeling as though they have to choose "the lesser of two evils." Parties not only get to control their nomination process, but also have an incentive to appeal to diverse constituencies.

IRV would give Pierce County voters competitive elections with more choices. There would be less negative campaigning because candidates would have to work for second-choice support from their opponents' supporters. The campaign season would be shorter, with only one election instead of two.

IRV would encourage more participation in our elections and, therefore, a more representative and accountable county government. Finally, taxpayers would save money because county offices would require only a single election.

Voters across the state are unhappy with the pick-a-party system. Although there is some talk of a nonpartisan top-two primary, it is clear that this is undesirable to the parties; furthermore, it is unlikely that voters, even independents, want to entirely eliminate the useful guidance of having party labels on the ballot.

IRV offers a better solution to the primary problem. It gives voters the choices they want, protects parties' control over who appears on the ballot, addresses the legal shortcomings of the blanket and top-two primaries and reduces election administration and campaign costs by requiring only one election instead of two. There may not be a perfect election system, but one that does all that certainly comes closer.

Voters across the state are still searching for an alternative to the pick-a-party primary they will once again use in September. Amendment 3 gives Pierce County the opportunity to take the lead in finding one that the rest of the state can follow. For these reasons, the League of Women Voters of Tacoma-Pierce County has voted to endorse Amendment 3 for Pierce County voters.

Lyz Kurnitz-Thurlow is president of the League of Women Voters of Tacoma-Pierce County.