Majority rule making comeback

By Ryan O'Donnell
Published November 24th 2005 in The Baltimore Sun
There's growing understanding that a basic democratic principle is not being honored in Maryland.

Earlier this month, incumbent Annapolis Mayor Ellen Moyer won another term with 46 percent of the vote while the other candidates split the remainder between them, with Gilbert Renaut at 36 percent and George Kelly at 18 percent.

The majority, or 54 percent of voters, voted for someone other than the winner. So the big question is, what happened to majority rule?

The question is all too common. Our elections tend to break down when more than two candidates run for the same office. It happens regularly in Maryland in primaries when there's an open seat one party is sure to win. In a gathering Democratic field, this may well happen in next year's U.S. Senate primary. In the general election, Kevin Zeese's independent bid could tilt a close election between the major parties.

On the same day as Ms. Moyer's plurality win, there was a breath of fresh air in Takoma Park. Voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to use instant runoff voting (IRV) to elect their mayor and city councilors. IRV was billed as a path toward better elections and a way to accommodate voter choice in the city. Residents responded powerfully to that message by backing the goal of majority winners by a margin of 84 percent.

The seven-member city council had voted unanimously to put the IRV issue on the ballot.

Here's how it works: Instead of marking an "X" next to one candidate, voters rank them in order of choice, first, second, and third. After counting first choices, whichever candidate crosses the 50 percent threshold wins. If no one has a majority, the lowest vote-getter is knocked off. The second choices of everyone who voted for the loser are redistributed to the remaining candidates in a second round of counting, adding these ballots to the totals they won in the first round. The process repeats until a winner with a majority emerges.

Having a majority means more than abstractly appreciating the nice round number of 50 percent, plus one. This is especially true in Annapolis, a city known for kicking out its incumbents, where agreeing on a consensus candidate is important. When a candidate does not win with a majority, the question follows naturally: to whom is the new leader accountable?

It also means that voters can be confused about what to do. Should they vote for the candidate they favor, even if they think that candidate will almost certainly lose? There's no right answer when the majority can split its vote and elect neither of its preferred candidates. On Election Day, even Ms. Moyer remarked that Annapolis is "clearly a divided city."

By contrast, instant runoff voting encourages candidates to reach out to more people, reducing some of the negative campaigning that can turn voters off to politics.

The time is right for Maryland to consider majority voting. With Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s creation of a bipartisan commission to review how elections are administered in the state, Maryland should take a serious look at IRV for its municipal and state elections. Compared to the hot-topic issues under examination by the Ehrlich commission such as voter identification and early voting, recognizing the value of majority winners is a no-brainer.

At the very least, Maryland should leave the option on the table for the future. With IRV's massive mandate in one of its cities, who knows how far the ball will roll. The Board of Elections should make IRV compatibility a requirement for any new voting machines it buys. The time to seek that requirement is when purchasing the equipment, not afterward.

If it chooses, Maryland could take a leading role for the country by reaffirming two of our most cherished democratic values: that the majority should rule and that everyone should be empowered to vote for the candidate of their choice.

Ryan O'Donnell is communications director for FairVote - The Center for Voting and Democracy, based in Takoma Park. His e-mail is [email protected].

Get Ryan O'Donnell Articles

Sign up to get new commentaries in your mailbox.