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Instant democracy available in instant runoff elections

Eric Zorn // Published March 2, 2009 in Chicago Tribune

An extensive Q&A and reference section on this topic is posted here.

How dizzying is Tuesday’s special primary election?

Saturday night, a Chicago newspaper columnist who writes frequently about politics had a chance encounter at Northwest Side social event with a prominent Chicago Democratic office-holder.

The columnist, whom I will not name so as to avoid embarrassing him, confessed sheepishly that he wasn’t even sure how many Democrats were running to succeed Rahm Emanuel in the 5th Congressional District.

The big Dem, whom I will not name for the same reason, confidently assured me—I mean him—that it’s 11.

In fact it’s 12. Along with six Republicans and five Green in their parties’ primaries.

History suggests that the winning Democrat will win the general election. And mathematics tells us that a small plurality—as low as 8.4 percent of the vote, but probably closer to 20 percent of the Democratic vote—will be enough to prevail in such a crowded field and launch the winner to Washington.

That’s not just dizzying, that’s absurd. Elections, even primaries, ought to be about measuring the will of the majority. And there is a better way.

Under an “instant run-off” preferential voting system touted by reform groups, voters register not just their first choice, but their second and sometimes third or fourth choices down the ballot.

If no candidate in a multicandidate race gets more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes, then officials add in the second-choice votes of those who supported also rans—usually starting with the candidate who received the fewest first-choice votes—and count again.

In the simplest example—a close, three-candidate race with no majority winner—each vote for the last-place candidate is, in effect, reassigned to one of the top two candidates by looking at second choice votes.

Why is this a better way? Because it eliminates the effect of so-called spoiler candidates who siphon off support from candidates whose views are actually more popular among the electorate.

In Tuesday’s Democratic primary, for instance, it’s possible that liberal voters will split among the group of progressive candidates vying for their vote, and a more traditional, establishment Democrat will eke out a win.

Supporters say instant run-off voting encourages voters to come to the polls even if they don’t think their first choice has a chance, prompts them to play closer attention to the entire field of candidates, and eliminates the expense of run-off elections where those are held.

It’s an unusual but not radical idea. A handful of places in the U.S. have used it—San Francisco is the largest to date—and Minneapolis plans to give the system a try this fall. President Barack Obama supported a proposal for an “instant run-off” preferential voting system when he was in the General Assembly, and similar proposals are floated (and shot down) in Springfield nearly every year.

Admittedly, this “better way” isn’t perfect. Opponents argue that anything more elaborate than “check one” can confuse voters, inspire excessive pandering by candidates, break down party discipline and hinder the hopes of strong minority candidates in certain instances. Brute majority rule has its drawbacks as well, and no voting system will help even the self-styled experts keep track of dizzyingly large candidate fields.

Still. My first choice is to at least give second choices a try. How much more absurd could it possibly be?

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Again, an extensive Q&A and reference section on this topic is posted here.