Running off at the booth
Tired of electing and recalling the lesser of two evils? Instant runoff voting could be the solution.
Instant runoff voting (IRV) is arguably the single most effective electoral reform that we as American voters have at our disposal, but despite a grassroots momentum that is building around IRV, most people still don’t have a clue what it is. American voters have not been introduced to instant runoff voting for probably the same reasons that our democracy is broken in the first place. We find ourselves with an elections system that has become monopolized by two political parties made into trusted brand names by corporate media—two parties very skilled at creating the illusion of choice for American voters.
I did not support the recall, but after voting in a historically bizarre election with a sample ballot that felt like a copy of the white pages, I think it is safe to say that Californians have indeed had their political horizons broadened. More than 100 candidates (some extremely qualified) came out to run for governor and inadvertently generated new vitality for the ’90s marketing slogan “I came for the cheese.” If there is any positive impact from this whole fiasco, it’s that more people than ever before are talking about instant runoff voting.
So what is instant runoff voting? It is certainly not a subject that receives any real attention from corporate media outlets, nor is it taught in schools. So, is IRV just some far-left political pipe dream? Not at all; it’s a system that’s been very well established in Australia and Ireland, though it was invented in the United States. “IRV has been utilized in Cambridge, Mass., since the early 1900s, in conjunction with proportional representation, to elect the school board and city council,” says Peter Martineau, co-director of Californians for Electoral Reform, a frequent partner with The Center for Voting and Democracy. Recently, IRV has been endorsed by presidential candidates Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich, Senator John McCain, and others.
What IRV offers is real openness to the elections process, by asking voters to rank more than two candidates in terms of their preference rather than make what is frequently a very unattractive either/or decision. Candidates are eliminated, last choice first, and the votes for each of those eliminated candidates are transferred to the next-ranked candidate on each ballot until a majority winner is determined. Aside from replacing the obsolete Electoral College, instant runoff voting neutralizes belief in the “spoiler effect” and consequently, eliminates certainty that a candidate from one of the two major parties will win an election. There were many voters who were crazy about Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential election and wanted to vote for him but were gripped by fear that a Nader vote would be a wasted vote. Imagine how it might have been to list Nader as your first choice and Gore as your second! If Nader had received the least amount of votes with IRV, your vote would have simply been counted for Gore or whomever else one listed as second choice. Arguably, the world would be a very different place right now.
IRV mandates that a true majority (more than 50 percent) vote is used to elect the candidate. According to The Center for Voting and Democracy, most states in the union have governors who won a gubernatorial election with less than 50 percent of the vote. Consider that in the last three presidential elections, more than half of the states awarded all of their electoral votes to a candidate that was opposed by more than half of the voters in that state. This is frightening if you let yourself understand it.
Instant runoff voting also eliminates the need for a primary election, saving taxpayer money, increasing voter turnout and presenting a menu of truly viable candidates rather than an obvious cascade of either/or choices. California got very excited when the first open primary election was held in 1998 because it seemed to provide a bit more freedom of choice. After the recall experience, maybe voters will remain hungry for unconventional choices. Or, maybe we will remain conditioned to accept what is offered to us—would you like two broken knees or a severed spinal cord? That is a tough choice to make.
It does seem like the average voter is more comfortable with responding to scandal and mudslinging than with learning about a multitude of candidates and issues. The truth is that in a gubernatorial race with IRV, real talk about real issues would become the only viable campaign method. “Conducting a negative campaign would be counterproductive. … Since there would be an incentive for each candidate to gain as many second-choice votes as possible, the candidates would be careful not to anger supporters of other candidates,” explains Martineau. And while the results of the recent California recall vote might not have been different with IRV, it is just as likely that a recall may not have even happened in the first place.
San Francisco voters approved instant runoff voting for use in 2004, although it has been delayed by “the typical dragging of feet,” according to Martineau. “The director of [Mayor] Willie Brown’s election commission was finally fired … for not pulling together the resources to make it work. A British consulting firm offered to have the ballots counted by hand, in response to claims from the Brown administration that the proper voting machines could not be purchased. Since then, we [Californians for Electoral Reform] have filed a lawsuit to make sure San Francisco gets IRV by March of 2004.”
It is true that a whole host of election reforms is needed, but instant runoff voting is where the rubber meets the road. We can keep fantasizing about what it would be like to witness a political campaign with a level field of candidates, all of them ensured equal access to televised debates and none of them getting eliminated for failure to raise enough funds or sling enough mud. Or, we can start believing that real change is possible and help support the movements that can bring that change to us.