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Time to run off runoffs

Rob Richie // Published April 28, 2008 in Fort Worth Star Telegram
Shh ... Will the last person to notice that Texas just had a statewide election please turn out the lights?

That's right: On April 8, Texas held a statewide runoff so that Democrats could get a majority nominee for railroad commissioner. Mark Thompson won, but he received seven times fewer votes than in the first round in March. Turnout dropped by more than 89 percent in his runoff and by at least 40 percent in all eight runoffs for state and federal offices.

There's real value in requiring nominees to prove that they have majority support in their party. But there's something wrong when turnout plunges so sharply - and Texan taxpayers have to foot the bill, which the secretary of state's office estimates at roughly $2 million. That figure is probably low.

It doesn't have to be this way. We're in the 21st century, and Texas can replace its horse-and-buggy approach to majority elections with instant runoff voting. Backed by Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, instant runoff voting determines a majority winner in one efficient election.

Voters gain the option to rank candidates in order of preference rather than select only one choice. If no candidate wins with a first-choice majority, the two candidates with the most votes advance to the instant runoff. Ballots cast for eliminated candidates are added to the totals of the runoff candidates according to whichever runoff candidate is ranked next on the ballot. That's all there is to it.

Instant runoff voting has been adopted to replace two rounds of voting in jurisdictions around the country, including Minneapolis; Cary, N.C.; Pierce County, Wash.; and Oakland, Calif. Instant runoff ballots are used by overseas and military voters during traditional runoffs in South Carolina, Arkansas and Louisiana.

Obama was the prime sponsor of Illinois legislation to establish instant runoff voting for primaries, while McCain recorded a phone announcement on behalf of instant runoff voting in Alaska.

Instant runoff voting's advantages over delayed runoffs:

Taxpayers would save time and money. Traditional runoffs are costly. Reducing the number of election days would allow administrators to spend their resources more efficiently.

Candidates are less likely to be indebted to special-interest contributors. Right now, candidates often fight to make the runoff and then find their campaigns strapped for cash -- triggering a scramble for more money that all too easily leads to the potential for ethical abuses.

All votes will count, and the winner gets a majority. By combining the two rounds of the runoff, IRV ensures maximum turnout in one decisive election. The big drop-off in turnout in Texas is the norm; of our last 110 federal primary runoffs, 107 have shown declines in turnout, on average by more than a third of the first-round vote.

The campaign debate would improve. Because candidates know they might need second or third preferences, they would be less inclined to attack opponents unfairly. Parties want nominees who are tough, but they don't want to self-destruct.

In general elections, instant runoff permits people to vote for third-party candidates without spoiling majority winners. In the 2006 governor's race in Texas, more than 60 percent of voters supported someone other than winner Rick Perry, and talk of spoilers was rampant. Letting voters have more choices with instant runoff voting would allow dark-horse candidates to raise issues that mainstream candidates might be less interested in promoting.

By eliminating costly runoffs, instant runoff voting would quickly pay for the one-time investment needed to update Texas voting equipment to be able to record voters' rankings.

It's time for the Texas Legislature and governor to adopt instant runoff voting for state and federal primaries and encourage its use in local elections.