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Major Victory for Voting Reform

On March 5, cities in California and Vermont adopted "instant runoff voting" systems that could crack open American politics to new voices and better choices.
 
 
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The first Tuesday in March marked the starting gun for this year's critical off-year congressional elections. In California, Democratic and Republican primaries ended the political careers of scandal-ridden Congressman Gary Condit, who was running for re-election, and former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, running for Governor.

But the biggest bang may have been ground-breaking votes on instant runoff voting in hip, urban San Francisco and more than four dozen towns across rural, independent-minded Vermont. Instant runoff voting has the potential to crack open electoral politics to new voices and better choices.

San Franciscans voted 56 to 44 percent to pass their city's "Proposition A" and become the first major city in the United States to use instant runoff voting (IRV) to elect its local officials. The comfortable margin caught city observers by surprise, given editorial opposition from the paper's dailies and a slick, well-funded opposition campaign from political consultants and downtown business leaders fighting for traditional "delayed" runoffs.

In Vermont, more than 50 town meetings debated adoption of IRV for statewide offices. Of the 51 reporting results, 49 towns gave a big thumbs up, most by overwhelming margins. Several bigger towns like Burlington supported the issue by two-to-one margins. The Vermont League of Women Voters led the campaign, but backers include a range of supporters, from Governor Howard Dean and Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz to 2000 Republican gubernatorial nominee Ruth Dwyer, Progressive Party leaders and the Grange.

The San Francisco campaign, a grassroots effort that garnered endorsements from a range of civic players, was spearheaded by the Center for Voting and Democracy. Supporters included California House Assembly Leader Kevin Shelley -- an upset winner in the race for the Democratic Party nomination for Secretary of State -- 1999 mayoral candidate Tom Ammiano, Democratic Party, Common Cause, NOW, California PIRG, the Sierra Club, Green Party, Libertarian Party, Reform Party, San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO, Congress of California Seniors, Asian Week, Chinese for Affirmative Action, Harvey Milk Democratic Club, United Farm Workers and over three dozen others.

Why did all of these groups -- often political enemies -- come together behind IRV? Consider our current electoral laws. When several candidates run for a particular office, the winner often receives less than majority support. A quick flashback to the presidential election of 2000 recalls not only that George W. Bush won with less than a majority of the popular vote, but the center-left majority split itself in states like Florida and New Hampshire between Al Gore and Ralph Nader. Allowing the "plurality" winner to take office can deny the majority its right to decide single-seat elections, and at the same time stifle support for underdog candidates who are too easily pigeon-holed as "spoilers."

Delayed runoff elections are a flawed alternative used in many cities and southern primaries. If no candidate receives an initial majority, voters must return weeks later to choose between the top two vote-getters. Supporters of the two advancing candidates must show up again to reconfirm their initial vote, while backers of eliminated candidates must generate enough enthusiasm to vote for their preference among the top two.

Not surprisingly, voter turnout in runoffs often drops precipitously, particularly once the candidates start battering one another in negative campaigns. This allows special interest contributors who fund those negative ad blitzes to gain more leverage over winners.

Instant runoff voting, also called "same-day" runoffs, provides an effective alternative. Used for major elections in Australia, Ireland and Great Britain, IRV ensures that candidates win single-seat offices with majority support in one efficient election. Voters indicate both their favorite and their runoff choices on the same ballot. If no candidate receives a winning majority of first choices, the weak candidates are eliminated. As in a traditional delayed runoff, their supporters choose among the runoff finalists according to the preferences marked on their ballots. Voters who ranked one of the finalists first continue to have their votes count for their favorite choice.

Imagine if instant runoff voting had been in place in 2000 when Ralph Nader and Al Gore together won a clear majority of the presidential vote, both in Florida and nationally. Many voters for Gore or even for Bush might have supported Nader if they had not been worried about the "spoiler effect." Not only would Nader's vote have been a truer reflection of his level of support, but ultimately the Nader vote would have pushed Gore to clear wins in Florida and the national electoral count.

Among its benefits, IRV could be particularly helpful in cities with racially diverse populations. Last year, runoff elections between white and non-white mayoral candidates exacerbated racial division in cities like Houston, Los Angeles and New York. Instant runoff voting would have promoted coalition-building in a single round of voting, rather than the charged politics of a one-on-one runoff election.

The March 5 wins for instant runoff voting could start a national trend. California is developing into a hotbed of enthusiasm for instant runoff voting, with strong interest in Oakland, Pasadena, Santa Clara County and San Leandro. Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg last year introduced legislation to implement IRV for special elections to fill congressional and legislative vacancies.

Vermont's grassroots success promises to boost state legislation already backed by the governor and secretary of state. Instant runoff voting advocates in states like Alaska, Florida, New Mexico and Washington are poised to capitalize on the San Francisco victory and the clear message from Vermont's towns.

Even as Congress moves toward apparent passage of bills to ban soft money in campaigns and modernize the way we run elections, the thirst for more responsive, open, and accountable democracy will not cease. In cities and states around the nation, democracy advocates are ready to push beyond their current efforts to lessen the impact of money in politics and improve electoral mechanics. As so often in our history, we can count on dedicated reformers at the grassroots to keep pushing us toward a stronger, fully realized democracy.

Rob Richie, Eric Olson and Steven Hill work for the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org), a national nonprofit organization. Steven Hill was the campaign manager for San Francisco's Proposition A.