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University of Maryland, College Park Considers Using IRV for Student Government Elections

The Diamondback
Staff Editorial: Results in an instant
February 13, 2002

If you've never experienced a Student Government Association election, consider yourself lucky. Occurring annually each spring, they bring sidewalk chalkings and fliers littered around the campus. Last year, candidates drove around the campus in golf carts and dressed up in ridiculous costumes in an attempt to attract the students' attention. When election day finally came, the votes were tallied and lo and behold, none of the candidates had gotten 40 percent of the vote.

The following week brought many of the same antics from the final candidates, by now desperate to make their time, efforts and energy worthwhile. But when election day No. 2 rolled around, not nearly as many people voted, probably because by that point, they had lost interest. It's no secret that runoff elections are generally not as successful as first-round elections, bringing up the question of whether they're really a true indicator of the winning candidate or not. But instant-runoff voting presents a solution to this problem. Instant-runoff voting eliminates the need for runoff elections by allowing voters to rank candidates preferentially. Thus, if a person's first-choice candidate is eliminated in the first round of voting, his or her second-choice candidate would be used in the runoff. The final candidate, winning a majority of the vote, would be finally determined with very little extra time on the part of, well, anyone.

An additional factor is that each candidate is allotted a certain amount of campaign money per election - first-round or runoff - and that money comes from the SGA, which gets it from your student fees. Instant-runoff voting is tallied by a software program that requires a one-time investment, making the mandatory fees paid by each student more effective and less wasteful.

The SGA will be voting tomorrow on a bill that would utilize instant-runoff voting in the election coming up later this semester. Eric Swalwell, chairman of the SGA government affairs committee, introduced the bill last week and wrote a column promoting it in Monday's Diamondback. The bill promises to eliminate the hassle and aggravation that is threatening to become a staple of SGA elections. When more than two candidates decide to run, it is nearly impossible for any one of them to receive 40 percent of the vote. And oftentimes, when a third candidate without a large ticket runs, the voters who really side with that candidate's ideas decide not to vote for him because they figure their vote won't count anyway. But instant-runoff voting would allow students to vote for a minority candidate guilt-free, knowing that even if he is eliminated in the first round of voting, their wishes will still be heeded in the runoff.

There is nothing to be lost by passing this bill and instituting instant-runoff voting. The benefits - sanity and order in the election process - are boundless. But that doesn't mean you won't see another monkey driving a golf cart around McKeldin Mall.

The Diamondback
SGA to vote today on runoff-election reform
February 13, 2002
By Scott Goldstein

The SGA will vote today to drastically change its election process. If passed, the bill would prevent a repeat of the costly and time-consuming runoff of last year.

Student Government Association government affairs committee chairman Eric Swalwell formally introduced the bill last week, calling for an instant-runoff voting system that would eliminate a second vote by allowing voters to rank candidates instead of choosing one.

"[IRV] is not black and white," Swalwell said. "It's a true, free and fair election."

Under current SGA guidelines, executive candidates need 40 percent of the vote to win, making it especially difficult to declare a winner when more than two candidates run for office. If candidates do not reach the 40 percent mark, a runoff election is held one week later.

In an instant-runoff election, each voter is given the opportunity to rank candidates in preferential order. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the candidate with the least first-choice votes is eliminated.

The ballots with the eliminated candidate listed as the first choice are reprocessed to the next-choice selection. The process would continue until a winner emerges with a majority vote. Historically, fewer people vote in runoffs, and instant-voting supporters say voting for a third-party candidate would no longer equate to throwing away a vote.

Although this process would essentially eliminate the chance of a "spoiler" candidate, Swalwell said the instant-runoff election actually helps additional challengers.

"IRV levels the playing field for third-party challengers," Swalwell wrote in a column in yesterday's Diamondback. "Because of a ranking system, voters will no longer feel their vote is wasted if they vote third party or independent."

The bill comes in the wake of last year's election, when SPANK SGA party presidential candidate Angela Lagdameo and vice president of campus affairs candidate Jeremy Bates won a runoff against Real Party candidates Micah Coleman and Ariel Oxman. Almost 6,400 people voted in the initial election, but only 3,490 voted in the runoff a week later.

Eric Olson, deputy director for the Center for Voting and Democracy and a College Park city councilman, campaigns across the country for instant-runoff elections. Schools currently using the instant-runoff election include the University of California at Berkeley, California Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Harvard, Stanford and Johns Hopkins universities, Olson said.

"IRV is a more democratic system because you get a majority winner with over 50 percent of the vote. People can express all of their preferences and don't have to come back to the polls the next week," Olson said.

The vote was originally scheduled for tonight, but was delayed because the registrar's office has not determined when the university's website could implement necessary changes.

University Courtyard legislator Francis Dacanay said the new system is a good alternative to holding a second election because it would save the candidates from the extra week of campaigning and exhaustion. "[IRV] is a way to solve that problem," he said.

Swalwell said he hopes the university could become a model for college elections across the country. Swalwell said Maryland would be the biggest university in the country to adopt the election process.

According to Swalwell, the software required for the new system would cost up to $1,000. Swalwell said the new software, which is sold by Voting Solutions company, would save the SGA and candidates money that would otherwise be spent on runoffs. Tomorrow's vote is only to affirm the organization's interest in an instant-runoff election, and will not bind the SGA to a contract with Voting Solutions, Swalwell said.

The Diamondback
How to eliminate SGA run-offs
Guest Columnist: Eric Swalwell
February 12, 2002

The Student Government Association's elections are quickly approaching. Hallways will soon be plastered with posters, sidewalks will be decorated with chalk and candidates will be running around the campus soliciting your vote. And if any of these candidates for executive office fail to reach a voting threshold of 40 percent, there will be an intermission, and then the circus will return for its grand finale: the run-off election.

Now what if I told you I could eliminate half the circus and its cost (in terms of money, time, emotion and energy)? At next Wednesday's SGA meeting (6:00 p.m., 2111 Stamp Student Union), your elected legislators will be voting on a bill I have introduced that intends to eliminate run-off elections. The bill further proposes to replace run-off elections with the sophisticated method of Instant Run-Off Voting (commonly known as IRV). Before I explain what IRV is, it's important to understand the problems with run-off elections.

First, executive office candidates only have to receive 40 percent of the undergraduate vote to assume office. This literally leaves the opportunity for a candidate to be opposed by 60 percent of the voting student body and still win office.

Second, since 40 percent is rarely reached when three or more viable candidates seek office, run-off elections are held often.

Third, a run-off election usually has a smaller voter turnout than the main election. By holding a run-off election, we are essentially losing votes that were cast in a main election. Do you as a student really have the extra time to vote twice in two weeks?

Finally, run-off elections cost everyone involved more money, time, energy and emotions. If a run-off election is held, the SGA will most likely have to spend an extra $600 to advertise in The Diamondback. Candidates in a run-off will be forced to spend more money campaigning an extra week, and the registrar's office will have to use its personnel again to tabulate the results of another election.

Elections are also exhausting, emotionally and physically. Anyone who ran last year will tell you that the biggest SPANKing was on his or her GPA, and the REAL winner was whoever wasn't emotionally and physically drained when it was all said and done. An extra week of campaigning can sometimes mean a letter grade or two, hours of lost sleep and a roller coaster of emotions.

So how do we hold an election without a run-off, and still force a candidate to receive at least 51 percent of the vote? The solution is Instant Run-Off Voting.

With IRV, students rank their candidates in order of preference. For example, let's say there were three candidates for president: Gore, Bush and Nader. A voter has the option of ranking his or her candidates from one to three, or not ranking at all. So let's say Student X ranks Nader as number one, Gore as number two and Bush as number three.

Assume that once the votes are tallied, the initial count distributed 45 percent of the vote to Bush, 45 percent to Gore and 10 percent to Nader. Under IRV, a software program will automatically place Bush and Gore in a run-off. All the votes for Nader will be transferred by their ranking preferences. In the case of Student X, the next best choice after Nader is Gore. Therefore Student X's vote would transfer to Gore. Once the program transfers the votes, a majority would be achieved and a winner declared.

But there's another reason IRV is effective. Unlike the current system, it does not violate the logical fallacy of "false dilemma," otherwise known as limiting your choices to "all or nothing." With IRV, voters are given a middle ground, a ranking system. In the aforementioned example, if Nader were eliminated, who was the next favorite candidate? Under IRV the voter has more colors to choose than just black and white. As you can probably see by now, this system eliminates not only run-offs but also spoiler candidates.

But don't be fooled, eliminating spoilers does not mean eliminating third-party challengers. Instead, IRV levels the playing field for third-party candidates. Because of a ranking system, voters will no longer feel their vote is wasted if they vote third party or independent.

If this method of election reform is important to you, please attend the SGA meeting this Wednesday and tell a legislator. With your support we no longer have to waste your student fees, and candidates will no longer have to waste their time, money and energy. And once the votes are calculated, the true winner will be efficiency.

Eric Swalwell is the chairman of the SGA committee on governmental affairs. He can be reached at [email protected].

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