Guest column: Instant runoff avoids costs, increases choice

By Jim Paprocki
Published January 31st 2009 in Des Moines Register
Iowa municipalities require candidates to compete in costly and unnecessary runoff elections. Instant runoff voting, or IRV, would not only save taxpayer dollars but also ensure the voter's sentiment is clearly reflected in the election.

Iowa elections generally reward candidates who receives the most votes. When more than two candidates run in an election, the winner may receive less than a majority. This raises the question of whether the winning candidate is really preferred by most voters.

Primary elections reward the candidate who has a plurality of all votes cast. A "winning" candidate is required to receive only 35 percent of the vote, even though an overwhelming majority chose someone else.

Why continue to use a voting system that involves additional expense and does not reflect the sentiment of Iowa voters?

Instant runoff voting is a winner-take-all system that, in only one election, ensures a winning candidate receives a majority of votes. This voting reform also is cost-effective because it eliminates the need for a separate runoff.

Instant runoff is consistent with Iowa's caucus tradition. The Democratic Party caucuses allow participants to support their second-choice candidate when their first-choice candidate is no longer viable.

In instant runoff voting, each voter has an opportunity to make a second choice and third choice among candidates running in the election. If none of the candidates wins a majority, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated. The ballots of the voters who ranked that candidate as their first-choice are then redistributed to their second-choice candidate. The counting of ballots simulates a series of runoff elections. This process continues until one candidate receives a majority of all votes.

Although instant runoff voting may appear more complicated than our current voting system, it really is no different from stating a preference for A, B and C in the voting booth. Research shows that voters favor instant runoff voting and find it to be user-friendly.

Instant runoff increases voter turnout by giving voters better choices in positive, issue-focused campaigns. A winning candidate has a clear mandate, as each vote contributes to electing a candidate you like rather than voting against a candidate you dislike.

The Federal Reserve Banks use a variation on instant runoff voting to elect their board of directors. It is used to elect the city council of Cambridge, Mass., and the president of the American Political Science Association.

There has been a groundswell of support for instant runoff voting nationally over the past few years, with successful initiatives to adopt instant runoff voting in Burlington, Vt.; Oakland, Calif.,; Minneapolis, Minn.; Sarasota, Fla.; Aspen, Colo.; and other cities. San Francisco has used it for the past three successive municipal elections. Moreover, many state legislatures are debating the merits of using instant runoff in municipal, county or statewide elections.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune and USA Today are among newspapers that have written favorable editorials.

So why not here in Iowa?

The Iowa Code precludes municipalities from using instant runoff voting. A regular, special, primary or runoff election is the only available option under Iowa law. Contact your legislators to ask for a change in our election laws.

Democracy requires voting procedures that promote fairness, greater participation and the clear preferences of its citizens.

JIM PAPROCKI has a master of public policy degree from the University of Northern Iowa.