A Cheaper, Better Way than Run-Offs

By Rob Richie and Steven Hill, November 5, 1997

Today's fiscally frugal voter demands that government be more efficient, less wasteful and less costly. Why, then, will Houston spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on runoff elections in the coming month?

Lee Brown and Rob Mosbacher topped the field in the mayor's race this week, but both fell short of a majority. Ensuring a majority winner is one of democracy's fundamental demands, but there is a cheaper, better way than runoff elections.

The solution is surprisingly simple: "instant runoff voting." Australia uses instant runoff voting (IRV) for parliamentary elections. Last month voters in the Republic of Ireland used IRV to elect its president. British prime minister Tony Blair has proposed IRV for British parliamentary elections.

To ensure winners obtain majority support in one election, IRV allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference: 1, 2, 3 and so on. The way ballots are counted simulates a series of runoff elections. If no candidate wins a majority of first-choice votes -- as in Houston this year -- the last-place candidate is eliminated. Ballots cast for that candidate are redistributed to each voter's next choice. This process of elimination occurs until a candidates wins majority support. Doing the count is simple, particularly by computer.

The Irish presidential race had five candidates. Mary McAleese gained only 45% of first-choice votes. But she was the second choice of enough supporters of losing candidates to win easily with 58% after the bottom three candidates were eliminated.

IRV would have numerous benefits:        

* Candidates and taxpayers would save money. As taxpayers in Houston and other cities like Atlanta and Miami are learning in current mayoral elections, traditional runoffs are costly -- both to the taxpayers who pay for the second election and to candidates who must spend more campaign cash.        

* There would be no more "spoilers." In races with more than two candidates, a majority of voters can split their votes among similar candidates. IRV allows such voters to coalesce in favor of the candidate that most voters support.        

* A winner with maximum turnout. In traditional runoffs, voter turnout often drops in the second election. By determining a winner in one election, IRV ensures maximum turnout in the decisive election.       

* Campaign debate would improve. Because candidates know that winning may require being the second or third choice of supporters of other candidates, they will be less inclined to attack opponents unfairly.

       Instant runoff voting saves taxpayer money and ensures majority rule with maximum participation. Houston would do well to make this year's runoff elections its last.


       (Rob Richie is executive director of The Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington, D.C. Steven Hill is its west coast director.)

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