Instant runoff voting: speaking to voter needs

By Krist Novoselic
Published January 3rd 2007 in Seattle Times
We are in the middle of a transition on how we hold elections in Washington.

It all started when the popular blanket primary was declared unconstitutional in 2003. As a result, our Legislature implemented the "pick-a-party" primary. While palatable to voters elsewhere in the country, its lack of wide-open choices triggered the gag reflex in Washington.

In 2004, voters passed Initiative 872, the Grange's top-two primary. Before it was even tried, I-872 was struck down for the same reasons as the old blanket primary was and is still in litigation, struggling toward a final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But on Nov. 7, elections in our state set a new course.

Pierce County decided it could preserve our tradition of wide-open choices while still respecting the rights protected by the U.S. Constitution. Voters passed Charter Amendment 3, implementing instant runoff voting (IRV) for their county elections.

IRV is a variation of traditional runoff elections. But, instead of holding two separate elections, voters rank their candidates, regardless of party affiliation, in order of preference on a single ballot. When tabulating ballots, the candidates with the lowest vote totals are eliminated until a majority winner emerges — just like in a traditional runoff.

In the face of the considerable dissatisfaction with the pick-a-party primary, many are advocating making all elections in our state nonpartisan. But ballots lacking party affiliation need not be conducted only under a top-two primary.

Since 2003, San Francisco has been using instant runoff voting for its nonpartisan elections, with research showing voters understanding and vastly preferring it over the old top-two system. This past election cycle, IRV enjoyed a nationwide sweep when voters in Oakland and Minneapolis overwhelmingly approved IRV for their nonpartisan elections.

Pierce County chose IRV to give voters back the wide-open choices of the late blanket primary while at the same time recognizing the role political associations play in our democracy.

Pierce County will implement a hybrid partisan/nonpartisan system. All candidates must meet the same ballot-access requirements. Candidates can then approach a political party for its endorsement. The organization could then grant its party designation to a candidate for the November ballot.

Some candidates wouldn't even bother to seek an endorsement. Those who failed to receive a partisan endorsement could still be on the ballot if they wished. Candidates without an endorsement would appear on the single November ballot independent of party designation.

This need not signal a return to the smoke-filled back rooms. A political association could hold a precinct caucus or district-nominating convention, or use a verified mail ballot. And if members are comfortable with Internet voting, they could poll their association by utilizing a secure, independent Web-based service. (Trade associations, schools and other types of organizations are increasingly going this route.)

In fact, the political parties should be excited about this reform. With instant runoff voting, parties could choose to nominate multiple candidates with the intention of attracting a greater swath of voters — without diluting their voter support.

The pick-a-party primary is a costly process of state control over what should be the internal affairs of private organizations. Instead, the state should consider standards to encourage inclusion and transparency with private partisan nominations.

A political association, working with candidates to meet these standards, would get an official certification to include in promotions. Interested voters would seek the "inclusive nomination" seal of approval when considering candidates.

Instant runoff voting is not an experiment. It has withstood the scrutiny of the courts and has a long, and mostly forgotten, history in our nation. North Carolina passed a law this year to use IRV in certain judicial-vacancy elections. Arkansas and Louisiana already use a single ranked ballot for their overseas and military voters for elections that might end in a runoff. South Carolina recently followed suit.

For all its leadership in the world, the United States lags far behind most other nations in voter participation. Only 15 percent of voters even bothered to participate in primaries this year — a record low for midterm elections.

IRV can help. Speaking to the needs of voters across our nation, IRV has won eight consecutive ballot measures in recent years. It's winning because it folds the function of the primary election into a single November election.

Voters will save time, as taxpayers save money. Other benefits of instant runoff voting are cleaner campaigning, more participation, less campaign fundraising, a shorter election season and meaningful choices.

Pierce County voters proved we can move toward a functioning, inclusive democracy.

Krist Novoselic, a local musician and co-founder of Nirvana, is a long-time advocate of instant runoff voting.

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