Monday, August 14, 2006

Burbank Column on Instant Runoff Voting

The column below appeared in the Tacoma News Tribune on August 9, 2006.

Pierce County would benefit from instant runoff voting
Published: August 9th, 2006 01:00 AM

We Americans claim democracy as the basis of our government. But voter turnout is dismal. In the 2004 general election, fewer than three out of five voting-age adults voted in Pierce County. In the 2002 general election, only 36 percent of adults bothered to vote.

And “bother” is an accurate term for a lot of people’s attitudes to voting. We have a growing antagonism to elections, thanks in part to negative campaigns and the feeling that “it doesn’t make any difference.” This feeds the gap of distrust between U.S. citizens and government, creating a void in our democracy.

We can either whine about it or do something about it. This November, Pierce County residents will be able to do something about it. Thanks to the actions of the Pierce County Charter Review Commission, Pierce County voters will decide whether to switch to instant runoff voting to choose local elected officials.

This is not a panacea for all the ills of our democracy, but it certainly opens up participation and choice and will make political debates more about real issues and less about personal attacks. Instant runoff voting is worth consideration and support.

Our current system could be characterized as a two-party duopoly that limits electoral choices and political discussion. You can either vote for a Democrat, or a Republican or someone else who doesn’t have a chance at victory.
Our system creates some weird results. Take the 2002 race for Pierce County Council in District 1.

The eventual Republican nominee, Shawn Bunney, got 2,586 votes, or 25 percent of the votes for Republican candidates. Then in November, he received less than 48 percent of the vote and was elected. His Democratic opponent received 40 percent of the vote; almost 12 percent went to the independent, Jay Argo.

The lack of a majority vote for Bunney makes you wonder who Argo’s voters would have chosen if they could have indicated their second choice. Most likely, they might have chosen Bunney, given that Argo is a pretty conservative guy. But that’s my assumption, not the actual choices.

And that’s the reason for instant runoff voting. It gives total legitimacy to the eventual winner and does so by including the voting choices of a majority of voters.

Here is how it works. The different parties – Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, the Green Party and whatever other parties – nominate their own candidates for office. They may choose to nominate one, two or even more candidates. But they serve as gatekeepers for who gets their seal of approval. We skip the primary election, in which fewer than one out of four adults participated in 2002.

All the candidates nominated by the several parties stand for election in November. If one candidate gets more than 50 percent, then she or he is the winner, and that’s that. But if no one gets more than 50 percent, then the second choices of the voters who supported the candidate who got the fewest votes get distributed to the remaining candidates.

If a candidate now gets more than 50 percent, a winner is declared. But if that doesn’t happen, then the candidate with the next fewest votes is eliminated and the second choices of his or her supporters are distributed to the remaining candidates.

This continues until a candidate picks up a majority of the votes.
This could have a calming effect on campaigns, turning them into civil discussions rather than shouting matches. After all, if you are a candidate, you want people to vote for you. But you will be careful what you say about your opponents, because those folks who don’t vote for you may put you down as your second choice.

This happened in San Francisco, after the city adopted instant runoff voting. All of a sudden, the candidates were forming alliances. They held joint campaign events. Civil debate and voter turnout both went up.

Instant runoff voting is catching on around the country. It is the method for voting in San Francisco and Burlington, Vt. Voters will have a chance this November to make instant runoff voting official in Minneapolis city elections as well as in Oakland and Davis, Calif. In North Carolina, it will be used for statewide elections for judges, and in Vermont the secretary of state is developing a plan for implementation in 2008.

Instant runoff voting ensures that our elected officials truly represent the majority. That alone is worth support in a nation that prides itself on democracy.

John Burbank, executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute (, writes every other Wednesday.

Write to him in care of the institute at 1900 Northlake Way, Suite 237, Seattle, WA 98103. His e-mail address is



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