My Turn: Instant runoff voting is needed

By Catherine Rader
Published May 2nd 2007 in The Burlington Free Press
Contrary to the view of this newspaper ("Instant runoff voting solves nonexistent problem," April 17), majority rule should be a fundamental principle on which our democracy is based. Instant runoff voting upholds this principle, as well as the principle of one person, one vote, while giving voters a chance to express their true preferences by ranking candidates. Instant runoff voting also improves the substance and tone of our political debates by giving all candidates the opportunity to address issues without being labeled as spoilers.

Instant runoff voting solves the problem of multicandidate races in which no candidate gets a majority. Although nonmajority outcomes may not be frequent for any particular office, it is commonplace in statewide elections as a whole. Each nonmajority "winner" means a candidate that a majority of the voters voted against takes office. This is not acceptable.

Instant runoff voting is a majority voting system that does everything a traditional runoff system does to ensure the winner of an election has popular support -- but in one election rather than two. Instant runoff voting combines the first and second rounds of a runoff into one efficient election by enabling voters to rank candidates in order of preference. As a way of easing into this new voting system, the Vermont Senate instant runoff voting bill would apply the system only in U.S. House and U.S. Senate races. If no candidate is the first choice of a majority of voters, an instant runoff will be conducted. The top two vote getters will advance to an instant runoff tally, supervised by the secretary of state.

Instant runoff voting elects majority winners, which protects democracy and reflects the values of Vermont's constitutional framers. It solves the defect in our current election system that has so-called "spoiler candidacies," splitting the majority and, in effect, undercutting the principle of majority rule. Compared to traditional runoffs, instant runoff voting saves taxpayer dollars needed to hold two polling days, avoids low-turnout runoff elections, and eases the burdens on election officials.

Instant runoff voting is easy for voters. Voters can pick just one candidate or rank several of them. If no candidate wins a majority of first choices, the top two candidates advance to an instant runoff. If a voter's first choice makes it into the runoff, that ballot counts for that candidate again in the runoff, but if the voter's first choice is eliminated, the ballot is counted for whichever one of the top two candidates the voter ranked higher. In Burlington's first instant runoff voting mayoral election, 99.9 percent of the ballots were valid. It is popular with voters, having been approved by voters in eight straight ballot measures, typically with more than 65 percent.

Instant runoff voting does not impose any new burdens on local election officials, who just count the first choices like they count votes now and report those results to the state. Nor does it require purchasing new voting machines or software.

Instant runoff voting is a proven system. It has been used by millions of voters for decades and is a recommended voting procedure in current editions of Robert's Rules of Order, where it is called "preferential voting." The system is used, or approved, in:

Utah: Nominating candidates and electing officers at Republican state conventions.

Louisiana, Arkansas and South Carolina: Overseas voters in federal and state runoff elections.

Washington State: Pierce County.

Vermont: Burlington mayoral elections.

Maryland and Michigan: Passed by voters for upcoming mayoral races in two cities.

California: Several cities and one county.

North Carolina: Certain judicial vacancy elections and several cities and counties.

Instant runoff voting fully complies with the "one person, one vote" principle. All voters get only one vote in any election round. Courts have upheld instant runoff voting, ruling it complies with "one person, one vote."

Instant runoff voting has broad support -- Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Peter Welch, former Gov. Howard Dean, former Rep. Ruth Dwyer (prior bill sponsor), Vermont Public Interest Research Group, The League of Women Voters, Common Cause, and the Grange. Secretary of State Deb Markowitz supports majority rule and the principle of instant runoff voting.

Catherine Rader of East Montpelier is president of the League of Women Voters of Vermont.