By Steven Hill
Political reforms such as redistricting reform, fusion and campaign finance
reform have been floundering at the ballot box in recent years, rejected by
voters in several states. But another political reform, instant runoff
voting, has been quietly racking up impressive victories.
Instant runoff voting (IRV), which allows voters to rank their candidates 1,
2, 3, made great strides forward during the November 7 elections. Voters in
four different jurisdictions overwhelmingly approved ballot measures for
IRV. In California, voters in Oakland approved the idea with a landslide 69
percent of the vote, as did 56 percent of voters in Davis. In Minneapolis, a
landslide 65 percent of voters passed an IRV ballot measure, as did 53
percent of voters in Pierce County, Wash.
What was interesting about the victories was that they happened in four very
different locations. Oakland is a very diverse, working-class city;
Minneapolis is a Midwestern values city; Pierce County is a mix of
rural/suburban/urban areas with many independent-minded voters; and Davis is
a small university town. Yet in every place IRV provided a unique solution
to problems with representative government.
Instant runoff voting ensures that officeholders are elected with a majority
of the vote in a single November election. No separate runoffs or primaries
are necessary. Voters rank their candidates, and if their first choice can't
win their vote goes to their second-ranked candidate as their runoff choice.
Voters are liberated to vote for the candidates they really like without
worrying about "spoilers." You can rank your favorite candidate first,
knowing if she or he can't win, you haven't wasted your vote because it will
go to your second choice.
IRV is catching on, whether on the liberal coasts or in heartland America.
North Carolina recently passed groundbreaking legislation to use IRV to fill
vacancies for statewide judicial offices and for local elections, and
there's talk of using it for all statewide offices. Driving the interest in
North Carolina are elections like the runoff in 2004 for the Democratic
nominee for superintendent of public instruction, which cost $3.5 million
and produced a 3 percent voter turnout.
Recently Louisiana, Arkansas and South Carolina, which already use two-round
runoff elections for various races, began using IRV for their
military/overseas voters because there is not enough time to mail a second
ballot to them when a runoff election is required.
Colorado recently became the first state to use IRV to fill a vacancy in the
state legislature. Takoma Park, Md., will use IRV for the first time in 2007
to elect the mayor and city council. Burlington, Vt., used IRV to elect its
mayor last spring, spurring the introduction of bills in the state
legislature for its use in statewide elections. Following the Minneapolis
and Pierce County victories, the largest newspapers in Minnesota and
Washington have called for IRV to be used to elect state offices.
San Francisco voters launched the IRV movement in 2002 when they passed it
for local elections, and San Francisco has used it now for three elections.
Several exit polls have demonstrated that San Francisco voters across all
racial, age and economic lines like ranking their ballots and understand
IRV. Since San Francisco's trailblazing voyage, nine ballot measures for
IRV have been passed by voters, often with landslide margins.
The movement toward use of IRV is gaining momentum because it answers a real
need. It's one of the best solutions to public frustration with unresponsive
and unaccountable government. IRV makes voters feel like their votes count
because you are not stuck always choosing the lesser of two evils. You can
cast your vote for your favorite candidate, knowing if she or he can't win,
you haven't thrown your vote away on a spoiler. It opens politics to new
candidates and their ideas, increasing political debate, and even
discourages negative campaigning as candidates try to win rankings from the
supporters of their opponents.
For all these reasons, instant runoff voting is now the hot reform to watch
as Americans grapple with how to improve our democracy and make elected
officials more accountable to We the Voters.
[Steven Hill is director of the political reform program of the New America
Foundation (www.NewAmerica.net) and author of "10 Steps to Repair American