'Yes' on instant runoff voting
Proposal offers a better way to ensure majority support
Published October 22nd 2007 in Herald Tribune
Sarasota voters have had their problems with punch cards and touch-screens, and many are just now learning about optical scans. So when a brand-new way of casting ballots is suggested, the first inclination is to laugh or scream.

But instant runoff voting, proposed as a Sarasota city charter amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot, deserves to be approved.

The concept is pretty simple. In races of multiple City Commission candidates, voters would have the option of ranking them according to preference: 1, 2, 3 and so on.

When the ballots are counted, first-choice votes are counted first. If no candidate wins a majority in that round, the candidate receiving the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. The second-choice votes of the eliminated candidate's supporters are then distributed among the remaining candidates, and the votes are recalculated. The process continues until one candidate wins a majority of the votes.

Worthwhile benefits

Instant runoff voting requires a little more of voters, but its benefits are worthwhile. For example:

It would eliminate Sarasota's need to pay for a separate runoff election, which costs about $37,000 for a citywide runoff.

It results in a candidate with majority support from the largest number of voters. Runoff elections are notorious for their low turnout, leaving the ultimate election of officials up to a tiny minority of voters.

It encourages candidates to appeal to all voters rather than a bloc of supporters.

It minimizes "wasted votes" -- votes cast for a candidate who is given little chance of winning. All voters can vote their conscience for a first choice, then choose other candidates in order of preference.

The process seems well suited to Sarasota County's new optical-scan voting system, in which voters mark paper ballots with a pen or pencil. Indicating a rank isn't much more demanding than filling in an oval. Besides, instant runoff voting would apply only in Sarasota city races involving more than two candidates, and voters would have the option of ranking or not.

The process works

Instant runoff voting has been tried, and it works. The process is being used in cities such as San Francisco, Burlington, Vt., and Cary, N.C. The Utah Republican Party has used it to elect officers. The League of Women Voters of Florida supports its use and Roberts Rules of Order -- the bible for conducting government meetings -- recommends it.

But will it work in Sarasota or elsewhere in Florida? Time will tell.

State election rules don't yet provide for instant runoffs, so even if Sarasota voters approve the process it won't be used immediately. The full text of the proposed charter amendment says the process will take effect within two years of the date that the state certifies instant runoff software that is compatible with local voting equipment.

Voter support in Sarasota and other Florida communities would help push the state toward certification. And the extended effective date would give city voters plenty of time to adjust to the idea.

Sarasota voters are a resilient bunch. We think they can handle the task of ranking candidates, especially if the result is a cheaper, quicker way to ensure that public officials are elected by a clear majority.

We recommend that city of Sarasota voters say YES to the Instant Runoff Voting charter amendment.