Chapter 10 The Fair Elections Movement in the United States: What is has done and why it is needed

Instant runoff voting: Momentum for a step toward American-style PR

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Instant runoff voting: Momentum for a step toward American-style PR
Many Americans -- particularly elected officials -- are cautious about moving away from our political traditions and practices, but will act if current electoral rules are transparently in need of reform or it seems in their or their party’s self-interest. These needs have been particularly clear in American single-winner elections – particularly those for executive offices like president, governor and mayor. Third party challenges typically are strongest in these high-profile races and have led to non-majority winners and debates about “spoilers.” Additionally, many primary and local elections employ traditional runoff elections that are expensive and cumbersome to run. Moreover, voters disproportionately focus on these single-winner races and can better understand the case for change.

IRV (the American term for preferential voting – AV) - though not a form of PR - would provide both better majority representation and minority participation than plurality voting. Australia has used IRV for parliamentary elections for 80 years, and Ireland uses it to elect its president. With IRV, voters rank candidates in order of choice, and the ballot-count simulates a series of run-off elections. If no candidate wins a majority of first choices, the last-place candidate is eliminated. Ballots cast for that candidate are redistributed to each voter's next choice in the next round of counting. This process of elimination of weak candidates continues until a candidate wins majority support among voters in the decisive round of counting.

IRV would resolve much of the controversy over “spoilers” in elections, a concept that has been well understood by many Republicans because of the effects of Ross Perot’s independent presidential candidacies in 1992 and 1996 and by many Democrats because of Ralph Nader’s Green Party candidacy in 2000. When compared to traditional runoffs, IRV saves money for taxpayers and campaign cash for candidates by combining two elections into one. Because of these more obvious benefits, IRV has spread much more quickly through the American political landscape than PR. In 1997, Texas became the first state to consider a statute on IRV in decades. In 1998, a charter commission in Santa Clara County (Calif.) placed an amendment on the November 1998 ballot that allowed IRV to replace runoffs in future county elections when the voting equipment was ready. In 1999, legislation to enact IRV for statewide and federal offices passed the New Mexico state senate and was for the second time considered seriously in Vermont. In 2000, Utah Republicans adopted IRV for their convention elections and in 2002 used it to nominate several Members of Congress. In 2002, San Francisco voters adopted IRV for all major city elections, while Vermont participants in 53 out of 56 town meetings voted to support IRV for gubernatorial elections. In 2003 and 2004, at least 20 states debated IRV legislation, and presidential candidates Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich regularly advocated it on the campaign trail.

Advocates of PR in the United States see IRV also as a potential steppingstone toward choice voting (STV), the ranked ballot form of PR. Because of the unpopularity of political parties, as well as exceptional circumstances of our federalism, most PR advocates see candidate-based systems as more politically feasible than party-based ones used elsewhere. Forms of PR using small multi-seat districts (three to five seats) can fit well within our current political culture. Indeed Illinois demonstrated just how well such a system could work. From 1870 to 1980, Illinois used the semi-PR system of cumulative voting in three-seat districts to elect the lower house of its state legislature. Voters had three votes, but had the option to put all three votes on one candidate. If about 25 percent of voters supported only one candidate, that candidate was sure to win; over 50 percent gave a party two seats, and at least 75 percent of votes were required to be able to sweep the district.

This relatively minor modification of winner-take-all rules had a very positive impact on Illinois politics. Nearly every constituency had two-party representation, more moderates were elected, and cross-pollenization of ideas between parties was not uncommon. Although the great majority of one-seat House districts now are safe for one party, there are relatively few areas where at least 25 percent of voters are not ready to support another party. The system fostered not only a different partisan mix in Illinois, but also a different mix of representatives from within parties since mavericks could and did buck their party leadership. In Illinois, most constituencies typically had two representatives reflecting two major factions within the majority party, as well as a representative from the smaller party that would often bring different experiences and views than representatives of that party where it was in the majority. Women won more seats than comparable states with single-member districts, and in places with substantial numbers of African Americans, black legislators regularly won, including several black Republicans, something unheard of in Illinois and many states today.2

The limitations of cumulative voting in three-seat districts – it does not benefit political minorities below 25 percent support and creates incentives for parties to limit candidates and competition to avoid splitting votes – are overcome by choice voting, which also has the political benefit of building on a rich history. In the first half of the 20th century, two dozen American cities adopted it through ballot measures. The system nearly always accomplished its objectives – giving more diverse representation and breaking up the power of political urban machines-- but faced determined resistance by persistent opponents. Despite the League`s having attracted the support of retired Supreme Court justices, the founder of the League of Women Voters, US Senators, and, more quietly, President Franklin Roosevelt, its opponents persistence paid off when they were able to take advantage of the election of controversial minorities – such as Communists in New York City during the Cold War, and African Americans in Cincinnati – to reverse most gains.

IRV does not necessarily lead to choice voting, but it removes two barriers to choice voting’s adoption: the educational hurdle of introducing the new concept of ranking candidates in order of choice, and the inability of most current voting equipment and election administrators to be able to run ranked ballot elections. IRV can give third parties a stronger presence and even sometimes allow their voters to play the role of kingmaker with their lower rankings. This in turn makes it easier to show how winner-take-all elections are unfair to supporters of these parties. Hence, implementing IRV can be a step in preparing to tackle the more formidable challenge of winning PR.

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