Picking Favorites

By Stephanie Dunlap
Published September 26th 2005 in Cincinatti CityBeat
Most Americans have been nursed from the first patriotic flag bib, or at least their first civics class, suckling on the purported superiority of the American political system. But if nothing else good came of it, the 2000 presidential election exposed some very serious flaws in the way the United States conducts its elections.

Now an activist is trying to convince Cincinnati that there might be better ways to elect our city leaders.

In fact, Josh Krekeler, principal organizer for Cincinnati Voter Choice, hopes to whip up enough interest and gather enough signatures to put choice voting on the ballot next year.

The system Krekeler advocates is actually a combination of two new voting systems that ask voters to rank candidates in order of preference.

"Your vote goes to the highest candidate that you ranked that it can help to elect," he says. "It cannot help elect a candidate who has too many votes or not enough."

One version, instant runoff voting (IRV), is used to decide single-seat elections such as a mayor's race. IRV has been used for years in Australia's national elections and is gaining momentum in cities such as Cambridge, Mass., and San Francisco.

Under the IRV system, if none of the candidates receives a majority, the candidate receiving the least votes is knocked out and the ballots ranking him or her first are transferred to the various candidates they chose second. Knocking out the bottom candidate continues until one candidate edges above 50 percent of the vote.

Implementing IRV would eliminate the need for a mayoral primary like the one Cincinnati just held. That would have saved the city about $200,000, proponents say.

It would also be more representative of the electorate's wishes, because in the recent primary only 20 percent of registered voters decided which two candidates will appear in the Nov. 8 election.

The second method, proportional representation (PR), would apply to multi-seat races, such as the upcoming city council elections. PR starts like IRV, by ranking candidates, but throws in a twist: Any candidates who got a lot more votes than she needs to win a seat -- which is determined by a formula -- would then transfer a fraction of the surplus votes to the second choices on the ballots that chose them first.

That illustrates Krekeler's biggest problem pushing choice voting: explaining it.

"The tabulation is kind of complicated, and that makes it very hard to campaign on," he says.

But Cincinnati actually had a quite functional PR system for electing council until 1957, when a black man, Theodore Berry, looked poised to win the mayor's seat. PR's opponents appealed to Cincinnati's racist attitudes to overthrow PR and institute the current at-large ("9X") council election system. Berry later became mayor anyway.

On the upside, choice voting would encourage more positive campaigns, because rather than differentiating themselves through vicious attack campaigns, ideologically similar candidates would play nice in hopes of appealing to voters who might at least rank them second. On the other hand, voters of that same ideological bent don't have to worry so much about the two candidates splitting their constituencies and inadvertently electing a third, untenable candidate.

It also frees up voters to rank first their favorite candidates, even if they don't stand a chance, without the "spoiler effect" on their second favorites.

However, there's some debate about IRV's ability to continue honoring both first and second choices once a first-ranked, outside candidate becomes viable.

Choice voting has gotten a positive response from the local Green Party, which is already actively backing the idea, as well as from most of the Charter Committee and a couple of Democrats, Krekeler says.

In fact, the 2004 Green Party Presidential candidate, David Cobb, prominently featured IRV in his platform.

"IRV has some political momentum in America that gives it the allure of a new, current idea," Krekeler says.

To learn more about choice voting, contact Josh Krekeler at [email protected] or 513-351-1289. For more information about IRV, visit www.fairvote.org.