Rundown of runoff voting options

Posted Nov. 21, 2010, at 8:56 p.m.

A lot of discussion has surfaced in the past month about candidates winning with less than a majority of support. I agree that a majority is preferable. Runoff voting — but not “instant” runoff voting — is the answer.

Both instant runoff voting and run-off voting promoters see “strategic voting” — voting to prevent someone from winning — as problematic in our democracy. Both groups want people to vote for their favorite candidate on the first ballot, regardless of popularity in the polls. The incentive offered in both runoff voting and instant runoff voting is a possible second shot at strategic voting — immediately with instant runoff voting, a few weeks later with runoff voting. The theory is that, given two hits at the ballot box, we’ll end up with higher-caliber elected officials.

But how that second “hit” is handled is very different in the two election procedures.

Runoff voting is simple, straightforward and easy to understand. In multi-candidate fields (which are becoming the norm in Maine), if no candidate receives a majority, then the top two finishers face a runoff election a couple of weeks later. More than a dozen states and many foreign countries use a second-round runoff of the top two candidates to determine a winner.

On the other hand, instant runoff voting (also know as ranked choice voting) has so many complexities built into it that challenges are practically guaranteed.

Yes, the instant runoff voting ballots are simple — first choice, second choice, third choice, etc. The problem is not with the voting — the problem is with the counting.

For instance, with instant runoff voting, only some people get to vote a second time — only those who voted for the weakest candidate(s) the first time. In this process, when the initial counts are tallied and no one reaches a majority, the least-favored candidates are eliminated, and only the second-choice votes for those unpopular candidates are counted and added to the first-round totals.

But what if in a five-way race I voted for the third-place finisher, and no one has a majority? Say the fourth- and fifth-place finishers are eliminated, the second choices on only those ballots are added to the initial counts, and those second choice votes end up determining the outcome. In that scenario, my second-choice and the second choice of all those who, like me, voted for the third-place finisher become irrelevant. That is inherently unfair — and, in my mind, undemocratic.

I think more enthusiasm for a candidate can be worked up, and people would be more inclined to vote for their favorite candidate in the first round, in hopes of getting that candidate into either first or second place. And then, in runoff voting, they will have a second opportunity to vote strategically — at that point to choose the lesser of two evils if their first choice did not make the cut.

One of the standard arguments for instant runoff voting is that it breaks the two-party duopoly. But Eliot Cutler, who placed second in this month’s race for governor, is an independent.

Instant runoff voting supporters say it has worked in some cities in the U.S. and a couple of foreign countries. But no state has it. And after a 2009 ballot where people contended instant runoff voting elected the wrong person, Burlington, Vt.’s, five-year experiment with instant runoff voting was repealed by voters there last March.

Another argument for instant runoff voting is that it is less costly than a separate runoff vote. But is it? New voting machines will cost millions of dollars, not to mention the inherent danger of hacking. And for those of us in small towns where humans count ballots, instant runoff voting will require a second round of hand-counting anyway, because we won’t know until the next day, after all the statewide tallies are in, if we need to look at that second column. So it makes no sense to take the time to tally second or third choices on some of the ballots until we know we need to do so.

I contend the cost of a simple runoff, a second round of voting a couple of weeks later in which all voters have the opportunity to cast a second ballot, is well worth the comparatively small expense of printing ballots and paying a few poll workers who are not already on municipal staffs. And I would advocate runoffs not only for general elections, but also for primary races.

No doubt the political landscape in Maine would have been very different, not just this year but for several decades past, if runoff voting had been the standard here.

Now is the time to get this done.

But please, no “instant.”

Jean Hay Bright of Dixmont is a writer, farmer and progressive political activist. She was the Democratic Party candidate for U.S. Senate in 2006.

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