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Instant runoff voting

Flyer Staff // Published October 16, 2008 in The Memphis Flyer

One of the more controversial proposals on the November ballot will unquestionably be the one proposing to add instant runoff voting as a component of the Memphis city charter. On the surface, IRV would seem to add a layer or two of complexity to the long-established means whereby

we elect this or that public official. In reality, it could simplify that established process and — no small advantage in times of financial stress — it could save taxpayers considerable time and expense.

It works this way: Instead of casting one vote for a single choice, Memphians going to the polls in, say, a multi-candidate City Council race, would be asked to rank the candidates in order of preference. If a candidate should receive a majority of first-place votes, that candidate, by definition, is the winner. Same as we're used to. On the other hand, if no candidate should receive a majority, instant runoff standing would go on to assign an appropriate weight to the number of votes for candidates in second, and third place, on down the line. These add-on numbers would decide the issue, in lieu of one of those high-expense, low-turnout special runoff elections we're now in the habit of having, at disproportionate expense to the electorate.

In other words, if Candidate A and Candidate B were virtually tied in first-place votes, but neither commanded a majority, there would be a sensible alternative to having to run the race between the two leading vote-getters all over again, weeks later, at a time when, human nature being what it is, voter interest would have tailed off and extraneous factors — organizational ones, perhaps, or maybe purely random ones like a spell of bad weather — might resolve the issue instead of the relative appeal of the two candidates. With instant runoff voting in place, the decision could be awarded instead to the candidate with demonstrably greater support in the mainstream electorate on election day itself.

Objections have been raised that, had IRV been in effect during the last city election, this or that candidate who finished third in a multi-candidate race might actually have come out ahead if the totality of first, second, and third place votes were weighted together for each candidate.

To which we say: So? In the first place, such an outcome would be a rarity; the likelihood is overwhelming that one of the two leading candidates would come out ahead. In the second place, should such a third-place candidate actually have more support in depth than two other candidates with higher first-place totals, then IRV would have brought the fact to the fore and prevented a miscarriage of the actual popular will. In other words, it wouldn't happen very often, if at all, and if it should — then so be it. In all probability, the best man — or woman — would have won.

One other relevant fact: Instant runoff voting would not apply in the races — like those for mayor or city clerk or for one of the six Super District at-large positions — where runoffs are not now permitted by judicial authority. Nothing would change except what everybody knows is the hit-or-miss, budget-busting method by which runoff elections are now conducted.