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Detroit Free Press

Local Comment: A better way for state to vote
By Tom Ness
May 29, 2003

Time is running out for Michigan citizens to speak up on how some $28 million to $48 million of federal money is to be spent on new voting machines mandated for as many as 92 percent of Michigan's voting precincts by November 2004 under the Help America Vote Act. Passed in response to the Florida debacle in the 2000 presidential elections, HAVA provides substantial money to most states for new voting equipment in an attempt to standardize voting procedures across the nation.

As a result of the act, voting machines in at least 26 percent of Michigan's precincts must be replaced before the next presidential election. According to the Michigan Secretary of State's Office, the bipartisan HAVA State Plan Advisory Committee will wrap up a series of public hearings on June 2.

Written testimony will be accepted indefinitely, but the committee's final report will be published by the end of June. So those wishing to comment must act very quickly. (Send testimony to Jeanette Sawyer, Bureau of Elections, 208 N. Capitol, Lansing, MI 48933.)

Michigan Focus on Reforming Elections, a nonpartisan citizen organization formed in December 2002, has chosen instant runoff voting as its first general goal.

If the advisory committee recommends voting machines for Michigan that cannot accommodate instant runoffs, this popular voting method will effectively be killed even before Michigan has a chance to consider its merits.

Instant runoff voting, invented in 1870 by an MIT professor, lets voters rank all their choices (1, 2, 3, and so on). If no candidate gets 51 percent of the first-choice votes, the one with the lowest score is removed and all the ballots are counted again. The process repeats until one candidate has the support of a simple majority. Thus, it guarantees that the greatest possible percentage of voters are happy on election night.

A growing body of empirical evidence strongly suggests that instant runoffs lead directly to increased voter participation. Obviously, they also provide a more precise method of measuring the electorate's true desires.

In areas that hold runoff elections, instant runoffs can save millions of dollars by instantly combining the runoff with the regular election. This eliminates the problem of "spoiled" elections, in which two candidates who combine to represent a majority split their vote and deliver victory to a third.

In the 2000 presidential election, a simple majority of the country preferred Al Gore to George W. Bush. With instant runoff voting, most experts agree that Gore would have won with the eventual support of many voters whose first choice was consumer activist Ralph Nader.

But those who approach election reform with partisan intent are not only ethically suspect but also playing a dangerous game. In '92, most experts agree that with instant runoffs, President George H.W. Bush would have beaten Bill Clinton, because of the spoiler role played by Ross Perot.

Bills to establish instant runoffs are pending in some 20 state legislatures. Interest is growing rapidly across the nation, and several Michigan cities are now considering this voting method. But if the 30 members of the state committee recommend machines that are incapable of handling ranked ballots, they will have effectively decided the issue for all of us.

Happily, all the major voting machine vendors provide instant runoffs compatibility for little or no extra cost -- if ordered when the machines are originally purchased. Later upgrades are expensive and often not even possible. Thus, reformers are begging the state committee to recommend that any new voting machines be capable of handling ranked ballots.

We're not asking the committee to take a position for or against ranked voting. It is not for the committee to decide whether or not ranked voting should be part of Michigan's future. We merely want the option to remain open so Michigan voters can decide.

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