Take Instant Runoffs to the Tipping Point

By Rob Richie

It's been a big year for instant runoff voting (IRV), the powerful tool to give voters real choices without charges of "spoilers." A sweep of three current IRV campaigns and a fourth campaign for proportional representation would be a significant boost toward mainstream acceptance for IRV. In the wake of a major legislative win in North Carolina that enacts IRV for certain vacancy elections and establishes pilot IRV elections in up to 20 cities and counties, there are campaigns to elect majority winners with IRV in three major jurisdictions: Pierce County, Wash. (population 760,000), Oakland, Calif. (population 400,000), and Minneapolis, Minn. (population 390,000). A sweep of these campaigns along with an advisory measure for proportional voting in Davis, Calif., would have immediate statewide reform consequences in states like Washington, Vermont and Oregon.

Since adoption of IRV in San Francisco in 2002, IRV has won an average of 72% of the vote in the four cities where it has appeared before voters: Berkeley, Calif., Ferndale, Mich., Takoma Park, Md., and Burlington, Vt. Now we have three major campaigns for IRV, each of which would fold a low turnout primary into the general election using IRV.

• The Better Ballot Campaign (betterballotcampaign.org, featuring a snazzy new flash animation on the campaign) in Minneapolis would eliminate the city's September nonpartisan primary -- one in which the top two candidates in each race currently advance to the general election -- and adopt IRV for all major city offices and choice voting for down ballot offices held at-large. The measure's chances of a win are strong. It was placed on the ballot in a vote of 12-1 by the city council after a remarkable grassroots signature drive and endorsement campaign. A motion to endorse the IRV measure won 86% support at this year's Democratic city convention, while the measure has the support of the mayor and all Democratic candidates this year for governor and secretary of state. Given the Republican governor's history of interest in IRV and widespread support among key Democrats, a big win could trigger significant statewide interest in a state with a history of multi-candidate elections.

• The Yes on Three campaign (yesonthree.com) in Pierce County, Wash., would replace the county's September primary and adopt instant runoff voting for nearly all county offices. Parties would nominate one or more candidates for each office through privately funded means, candidates would have easy ballot access and IRV would be used in November. The measure is very competitive. It was placed on the ballot in a pair of narrow votes of the elected charter commission. A large, growing county, Pierce County has cities (Tacoma and Puyallup are the largest), but many voters live in semi-rural and rural areas. At least one elected county commissioner of each major party has endorsed the measure, as has the League of Women Voters and the Republican candidate for county auditor. Former Nirvana rock star Krist Novoselic is playing a major role in the campaign, both in raising money and speaking.

A win would have immediate statewide repercussions. Washington voters do not like their new "pick a party" primary and will be open to change. Meanwhile, Oregon has been debating a similar system that also allows parties to nominate privately, but with one significant difference -- without using ranked choice ballots, the field would be reduced to two in a May primary dominated by aging voters. Putting all the choice among candidates in November with IRV is a much stronger reform.

• The Oakland IRV campaign (oaklandirv.org) in Oakland, Calif., would eliminate the city's June elections and adopt instant runoff voting for all major city offices in November. In Oakland's current system, most races are won when a candidate gets a majority in the low-turnout June election; in races without majority winners, the top two then face off in November. The campaign's chances of a win are good. The measure was placed on the ballot in a vote of 6-2 by the city council after a relatively short-term effort to win support. The League of Women Voters has endorsed the measure and been the lead voice in advocating the reform.

A landslide win in Oakland, which is possible, could have significant ramifications for statewide efforts. San Diego already is actively studying IRV, Santa Clara County has passed IRV as an option and several Los Angeles city councilors are interested. A pro-IRV candidate for Secretary of State has a reasonable chance to win. At the same time, well-funded efforts to reform redistricting and set up a "top two" primary system have failed, and advocates of those reform approaches may be ready to look to IRV. More wins for IRV and successful implementations would create conditions where several more cities and counties will move to IRV and a statewide effort in four to six years to eliminate state-funded primaries and adopt IRV would be quite plausible.


Other IRV Highlights

• Davis, Ca.: Placed on the November ballot by a 3-2 vote of the city council, this measure would recommend a ranked-choice voting method for city elections. If the city keeps at-large elections, that would mean a proportional system. There is a strong base of support at UC-Davis, which has used choice voting for several years. (www.davischoicevoting.org)

• North Carolina: In August, the North Carolina governor signed bipartisan legislation (H1024) to use IRV for certain judicial office vacancies, including some statewide offices, and to let 10 cities and 10 counties try IRV in their local elections. FairVote is helping to reach out to cities and counties about their potential to use IRV; already the election director of one of the state's largest counties, Mecklenburg, has expressed interest.

• Vermont has a long history of debating IRV going back to 1998. Backers in the state include the Grange, the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, AFL-CIO, Howard Dean, this year's Democratic candidates for US House, Secretary of State and governor, and the 1998 Republican candidate for governor. The success of voters in using IRV in Burlington's mayoral elections this year and the ongoing dynamic of split votes between Democrats and the Progressive Party spur debate about how IRV addresses the "spoiler" problem. In 2006, a bill to implement IRV for all eight statewide elections in 2008 had support, but ultimately was amended to require the Secretary of State first to present a plan in early 2007 on the feasibility of 2008 implementation. FairVote will work with state backers to build support in the legislature and make sure the Secretary of State has accurate information for her study on the logistics of setting up a statewide IRV election.

• South Carolina and other southern states: The successful transition to using IRV ballots for overseas voters in South Carolina's primary elections this year may trigger real interest in exploring IRV along the North Carolina model: pilot projects and use of IRV in some vacancy elections. The Republican chair of the Senate elections committee already has expressed general interest in IRV. Other southern states with runoffs also have shown interest in IRV.

• Future city campaigns in 2007-2008: Cities where there has been significant interest in IRV among elected officials and key civic groups include: Denver, Colo., where a November 2006 vote was seriously considered before backers decided to wait until either 2007 or 2008; Aspen, Colo., where the city council looks poised to place IRV on the ballot as soon as early 2007; Santa Fe, N.M., where a March 2008 charter amendment looks likely, in a state where IRV already has been debated seriously in the legislature; San Diego, Calif., where a task force is currently deliberating IRV and should make a final recommendation in the fall; New York, N.Y., where the current two-round runoff system for citywide primaries can cost the city up to $20 million, yet experience plunging voter turnout; and Gainesville, Fla., where a charter commission this year expressed support for IRV and called on the Florida legislature to pass a statute clarifying legality for cities.


Rob Richie is director of FairVote (fairvote.org), whose IRV America program provides logistical and educational support to reformers in a number of other states and cities.