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In Defense of IRV

Terry Bouricius // Published March 18, 2009 in Seven Days

There was no talk of “spoilers” in Burlington’s recent mayoral election, which offered four strong candidates for the city’s top spot. The reason? Instant-runoff voting allowed voters to rank their preferences in order of choice.

Not everyone was happy with the outcome, of course, but thanks to IRV, Queen City contests will never approximate the Gore-Nader-Bush meltdown we saw in 2000. This is particularly important in a multiparty state like Vermont. Unfortunately, vocal opponents are spreading misconceptions about IRV.

IRV is widely recognized among political scientists as more democratic than the more prevalent election methods used in the U.S. It has been used for generations in Ireland and Australia, and has been adopted in American cities including San Francisco, Minneapolis and Memphis. The American Political Science Association incorporated IRV into its constitution to elect its national president. Active backers in recent years include President Barack Obama and Senator John McCain.

“Majority rule” has been the norm for most of Vermont’s history. To settle for a candidate with a mere plurality — less than 50 percent — is a relatively recent concession, to avoid repeated runoff elections. At traditional town meetings, Vermont law still requires that the candidates with the fewest votes are dropped one at a time and meeting attendees immediately vote again, until one candidate gets a majority. IRV simulates this process by combining those rounds into one election.

With IRV, each voter gets a single vote, but gets to rank the candidates in order of preference. Imagine voters who thought that Andy Montroll was the best candidate and strongly opposed Kurt Wright. In the first round their ballots counted for Montroll. But when Montroll didn’t make it into the final runoff, his supporters weren’t excluded from weighing in. As with supporters of Dan Smith, their ballots counted for Kiss or Wright, depending on which was ranked higher. Every voter was allowed an equal voice in the runoff between Kiss and Wright, and a narrow but clear majority preferred Kiss. Of course, some voters abstained in the runoff, as is their right, by not indicating any preference between these front runners.

In any election with several strong candidates, it is unlikely that any single candidate will be the first choice of a majority. The traditional way to get a majority winner is to reduce the field to two finalists and see which candidate earns a majority in a runoff. IRV uses the identical logic. No candidate won an initial majority of the vote, but Kiss won a majority of votes in the final round. If people accept the winner of a traditional runoff as a majority winner, then so is the winner of an instant runoff.

IRV is superior to separate runoffs in several ways, however. Separate runoffs extend the election season, and force candidates into a desperate round of renewed fundraising, often funneled into negative ads, which boosts candidates with quick access to big money. Taxpayers foot the bill for the extra election. And studies show that voter turnout in separate runoffs generally drops significantly.

Wright supporters like to point out the number of “first choices” each candidate received in the first round, while discounting the final round. That’s like calling a horse race at the midway point. Also, note that Wright could easily have come in third in the “first-choice” category simply if another conservative candidate were in the race to divide his supporters. The point is: The vote tally in the first round depends on the ideological mix of candidates and how they subdivide constituencies. A 40 percent plurality leader could be the candidate that 60 percent of voters consider to be the worst choice. Unlike the plurality system we now use to elect most state offices, IRV can never elect a candidate whom the majority thinks is the worst.

Some say IRV is too hard for voters to understand and thereby discriminates against some voters. But the recount results prove otherwise. There was only one defective IRV ballot cast in the entire city of Burlington; 99.9 percent were valid. Plus, voters in low-income Wards 2 and 3 were just as likely to use alternate rankings as voters in the more affluent Wards 4, 6 and 7. A whopping 81.9 percent of voters in the low-income wards ranked more than one candidate, compared with 81.8 percent in the more affluent wards.

IRV produces fair outcomes, not “perverse” ones, as claimed by UVM political science professor Tony Gierzynski in his recent attack on IRV in the Burlington Free Press. Gierzynski, who lost to Bob Kiss in a 2002 race for the legislature, observed that his party’s nominee, Andy Montroll, was the compromise choice who could theoretically beat any of the other candidates in a one-on-one race. But he failed to acknowledge that this “paradox” is more prevalent with “top-vote-getter” plurality elections and separate runoff elections than with IRV. Montroll loses under plurality rules, coming in third, and in a traditional runoff fails to make it beyond the first round of voting. IRV gives such compromise candidates a better chance of winning than any voting method used by any government anywhere in the world.

Gov. Jim Douglas last year vetoed adoption of IRV for our congressional elections, but he should reconsider. Like separate runoffs that are so much a part of our state’s political history, IRV determines the majority winner in the choice between the top two candidates, but without the side-effects of extended campaigns, lower voter turnouts and cost to candidates and taxpayers. Burlington’s remarkably successful IRV elections show that the Vermont League of Women Voters, Common Cause and dozens of state legislators are right to be seeking IRV for Vermont’s statewide elections.