CHARTER AMENDMENT 3: County voters would lose power

By Richard Anderson-Connolly
Published October 25th 2009 in The News Tribune
The proposed Amendment 3 to the Pierce County charter is another instance of incumbent politicians on the County Council acting in a completely self-serving manner, rigging the system for their personal advantage.

They know that instant runoff voting – also known as ranked-choice voting – moves power away from incumbents in the two parties and toward the voters.

According to independent researchers at the University of Washington, IRV is an effective way to simulate a two-round election (like the top-two or pick-a-party) in a single election. That’s why it has the support of such national leaders as John McCain and Barack Obama as well as our local League of Women Voters.

Yet the council members, along with their allies inside the political parties, have created a misinformation campaign about IRV designed to kill it before it catches on. With Amendment 3, they want to replace IRV with the “state primary system” that the courts or state parties may change at any time.

Whose interests will be served if they succeed in fooling voters into overturning our voting reform? Behind all the false rhetoric is their fear of an unstated truth: IRV elections are simply too fair and too competitive for the incumbents in the two parties.

IRV removed the discrimination in ballot access found in state law, under which candidates in the two parties could move directly to the ballot while other candidates had to get signatures.

IRV treats all candidates equally. Approval of Amendment 3 would reinstate the bias toward the two parties.

The first IRV county election in 2008 had the most candidates of any general election since the county adopted the current form of government. Voters saw 22 candidates competing for seven offices; in 2006, before IRV, we had five open offices but only six candidates. Most incumbents got a free pass.

By consolidating the primary with the general election, IRV also cut in half the amount of money that can be raised by politicians running for office. This has the most impact with big campaign contributors – those who can give the maximum amount for both primary and general election campaign – and tends to exacerbate the fund-raising advantage of incumbents. IRV thus tends to reduce the influence of money in politics. In 2008, only half of the winners were the biggest spenders.

Once on the ballot, outsiders and independent candidates don’t have to worry about the spoiler problem. Being forced to vote for the “lesser of two evils” has been eliminated by IRV. Thus an independent candidate received 15 percent of the first choices in the highly competitive race for county executive. Another historic event.

Under the old system, which the council wants to bring back, the incumbents can depend on getting votes from people who are dissatisfied yet still feel cornered because they don’t want to “waste” their votes on better independent candidates.

If Amendment 3 passed, those outside voices would again be dismissed as “spoilers” and virtually disappear from the campaign. The voters will lose these voices and these choices.

Given the advantages for the average voter and the disadvantages for the politicians, it’s no surprise that the council wants to end IRV.

This is not to say that IRV in Pierce County is already perfect. We’ve only had one IRV election. There is still plenty of room to improve voter education and to adopt cost-saving technologies.

In fact, some citizens tried to help the county save printing costs by moving the IRV races to the same ballot sheet as other races, something that already exists in other jurisdictions. Yet the auditor’s office wouldn’t try to make it happen.

The League of Women Voters wanted to improve the IRV voter education program but was likewise ignored.

Let’s not reward the politicians who wanted IRV to fail and thus botched the implementation. Instead, let’s hold our politicians accountable for properly implementing the reforms we voted for.

Voters adopted IRV in 2006 and again in 2007. This reform has made Pierce County elections fairer and more competitive. Don’t let them take it away. Reject Amendment 3.

Richard Anderson-Connolly is associate professor of comparative sociology at the University of Puget Sound. He is the vice-president of Ranked Choice Voting Washington.