Thursday, August 28, 2008

IRV: beyond the top-two primary

Note: This is an article from the Seattle Times.

By Richard Anderson-Connolly

Special to The Times

The current debate over whether the top-two primary violates party rights, confuses voters, or props up the secretary of state as the restorer of the blanket primary misses the real point. The discussion should focus on the fact that the top-two primary is completely unnecessary.

A primary election can do two things. First, it can select the nominee of each party who will move to the general election. Second, it can simply reduce the number of candidates in the second election.

The top-two primary only attempts the latter. It lacks any nominating function by taking a potentially crowded field and reducing it to two candidates.

Although the parties may not like the top-two primary, this system has one appealing outcome: It produces majority winners. That's a big improvement over both the blanket and the pick-a-party systems, where majority rule was not a requirement.

When three or more candidates are in a race, it is possible for the winner to earn less than 50 percent of the vote. In a three-way race, the two candidates who are most similar can easily split the support of a majority and let the other candidate win with a plurality.

The most famous recent example is the 2000 presidential election in Florida. The majority vote split and Ralph Nader, despite his denials, spoiled the election. If Florida had used a top-two primary, then the Nader voters probably would have gone for Gore in the general. Of course, spoiling goes both ways. The Libertarians have cost Republicans a few races here in Washington.

In any case, we don't want a system in which the strategy is to split the majority vote and let the wrong candidate sneak in.

The top-two primary plus a general election is known as runoff voting. There is another option to the top-two approach that achieves a majority winner in one election — instant-runoff voting (IRV).

In an instant runoff, as opposed to a traditional runoff, voters can rank the candidates on the ballot. In every round, a vote counts toward the voter's highest ranked candidate still in the race. Candidates are eliminated beginning with the one in last place.

Take for example the Bush-Gore-Nader race. With IRV, Nader supporters could have put Nader first and Gore second. Because no candidate would have initially received a majority (Bush won Florida with less than 50 percent of the vote), Nader would have been eliminated from contention. Then the ballots would have been counted again. The first-place rankings of Bush and Gore would have stayed but the Nader supporters' votes would have gone to their second choice, Gore. Under IRV, Gore would have won with a majority.

Because the major parties and Secretary of State Sam Reed are focused on the wrong issues, many voters may not be aware that IRV will occur right here in our state. Pierce County voters approved IRV in 2006 and will use it for the first time this November for most county offices, including the executive and County Council. In Pierce County, instant-runoff voting is also called, with good reason, ranked-choice voting (RCV).

Pierce County is the only place in the state where voters will choose from more than two candidates in any race in November. The executive race, for example, has four strong candidates. Yet, the winner will have a majority and no candidate will be a spoiler. In addition, the county didn't have to run a primary for these offices.

Washington would save millions of dollars each election cycle by moving to IRV and eliminating the primary. Plus, voters would have more choice in the November election when participation is highest.

The only downside is the cost of moving to the new system. Equipment might need to be purchased, as it was in Pierce County. And some money must be spent on voter education so that ballots are properly marked.

Yet these costs will be paid for ultimately by eliminating the primary. IRV in San Francisco eliminated a runoff election and has already paid for itself. Every election cycle now brings pure savings.

The other objections to IRV don't stand up. Voters are not confused by rankings. IRV doesn't require touch-screen, black-box voting. And the system has a proven record: Voters in Ireland and Australia have been using IRV for more than 60 years.

IRV is also legal. An instant runoff does not violate one person, one vote any more than the traditional runoff. Many people in Washington voted for a candidate in the primary who won't be on the general-election ballot. Yet everybody gets to vote again. This is tantamount to stating a first choice in the primary and a second choice in the general.

If we are ready to move beyond the primary as a nominating election — and most voters don't seem too concerned about the insult to the party insiders — then we can actually dispense with the primary altogether. Ranked-choice voting in Pierce County shows the way forward.

Richard Anderson-Connolly is associate professor of comparative sociology at the University of Puget Sound and vice president of Ranked Choice Voting Washington.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Pierce County Voters to be First in State With Ranked Choice Voting

Note: This is an article from the Kitsap Sun.

Lori Losee, for Gig Harbor Life
Wednesday, August 20, 2008

During this year’s General Election, Pierce County voters will be the first in the state and third in the country to participate in Ranked Choice Voting (RCV).

Approved by voters in 2006, Charter Amendment No. 3 (Instant Runoff Voting, now referred to as Ranked Choice Voting) will allow voters to select up to three candidates in all county official races except for judges and prosecuting attorney.

Pierce County Auditor and County Executive candidate Pat McCarthy (D) said her department’s major goal is knowing that voters have confidence in the new system and will know what to do.

“We hope and believe in our protocols to have a successful election,” she said.

What does this mean for voters? In the past, voters could only choose one candidate for any particular race, now with RCV, voters can rank a first, second and third choice candidate for a single office for certain county offices.

For RCV races, no primary will be held.

As for tabulation, McCarthy said RCV will be conducted in rounds and that the candidate who receives the fewest number of first-choice votes is eliminated from the race after each round.

Voters, who selected an eliminated candidate as their first choice, will have their second and third choices distributed appropriately. These rounds will continue until one candidate has a majority (50 percent plus one).

“For a traditional election based on plurality, you (candidates) don’t have to have a majority to win,” McCarthy said. “This really changes the dynamics of the election since its winner takes all in November with no primary.”

In addition to her staff, McCarthy also established a 10-member Blue Ribbon review panel to provide input and feedback as the Auditor's office writes the voting protocols necessary for carrying out RCV elections. Panel members include the county chairs of the Democratic, Republican and Libertarian parties.

Along with the panel, McCarthy said she and her staff have been working with election officials in San Francisco who also use RCV as part of their training.

County election staff were flown to San Francisco to watch the election process and learned from their experiences and are trying to copy the successes while avoiding the same problems, McCarthy said.

“It’s going to be great, fabulous,” she said. “We worked a lot of hours to prepare for this and it was very challenging, I am very blessed with a good staff.

“This was a huge undertaking that included writing new election rules and procedures.”

This September after the primary election, the Pierce County elections department will roll out a countywide awareness campaign.

“Our hope is that voters won’t get confused with the two ballots,” she said. “Most people are shocked and wonder how we ended up with a system likes this, even though it was approved by the voters.”

For this year’s general election, RCV will be used for the races for county executive, sheriff, assessor-treasurer and council districts (positions 2, 3, 4 and 6). In 2010, voters will use RCV to elect the auditor and council districts (1, 5 and 7).

RCV does not apply to state and federal officials or the adoption of ballot measures, nor will it apply to federal and state elections or the elections for Port of Tacoma, cities and towns, nor school, fire, park, water, sewer or drainage districts.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Edwards, Obama and Clinton : Goings, McCarthy, Bunney and Lonergan

Polling for RCV elections is a bit different than standard elections. It requires a richer set of questions of voters, but reveals more about voter preferences than standard polling. The Iowa caususes for the Democrats have an element of ranked choice in their process. As a result, polling organizations ask more and deeper questions.

It will be interesting to see if there are any polls on the Pierce County Executive race that take into account the RCV nature of the race. Will voters who list McCarthy as their first choice, list Goings or Bunney as their second choice? Will voters who list Lonergan as their first choice, list a second choice? If so, who? These second choices are likely to have an impact in Pierce County. There are those who think they had an impact in Iowa.

Below is a portion of an article about the Iowa Democratic causus which appeared in the Washington Post.

Iowa Recount

"Speaking of Edwards, former Hillary Clinton campaign chairman Howard Wolfson made a splash telling ABC News that had the Edwards scandal come out before January's Iowa caucuses, Clinton would now be the nominee.

Wolfson's speculated that "maybe two-thirds" of the Edwards voters would have voted for Clinton, who came in third after Obama and Edwards.

A fine theory, except that it conflicts with the networks' polling data at the time, our pollster Jon Cohen notes on

Cohen writes: "In the networks' Iowa entrance poll, 43 percent of those who went to a caucus to support Edwards said Obama was their second choice. Far fewer, 24 percent, said they would support Clinton if their top choice did not garner enough votes at that location." The rest preferred others, had no second choice or were uncommitted.

So what? The undisputed fact remains that if Obama and the other candidates hadn't run, Clinton almost certainly would have won the nomination."


Sunday, August 10, 2008

Ranked Choice Voting put to the test in Pierce County Council, District #2 race

Joyce McDonald (R), Carolyn Merrival (D) and Al Rose (D) are running for Calvin Goings' seat on the Pierce County Council. Goings, a Democrat, held the seat for eight years and is running for County Executive this November.

The race is an interesting example of the new Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) system being used in Pierce County. All three candidates will appear on the November ballot. Voters will be allowed to list their first, second and third choices on the ballot. The Democrats are counting on voters listing their first two choices for Democrats. McDonald's campaign would like to see either some ticket splitting or some voters listing just their first choice.

Joyce McDonald was first elected State Representative in 2002 and has chosen to run for Pierce County Council rather than to run for re-election.

In 2000, McDonald ran for State Senate against Democrat Jim Kastama and Libertarian Jerry Christensen. Kastama won with less than a majority of the vote. At the time, McDonald was quoted as saying that Christensen had cost her the election. It would have been quite interesting to have had that race run as a RCV election where voters were allowed to list their second choices as well as their first choices. McDonald might well have spent the last eight years in the State Senate rather than Kastama.

McDonald is a strong candidate in this race given her name recognition and ability to campaign. While this district probably tends Democrat, the strength of McDonald's name recognition may well carry the day.

Dr. Carolyn Merrival was elected to the Pierce County Charter Review Commission and opposed Ranked Choice Voting while on the Commission. However, she showed herself to be a thoughtful, hard working member of the Commission. Later, she supported Democratic Party rules to allow more than one Democrat on the ballot in Ranked Choice Voting elections. We compliment Merrival on her support of voter choice. Merrival certainly wants the second choices of Rose supporters.

Al Rose is a deputy Prosecuting Attorney in Pierce County. He has been the legal counsel to the Pierce County Auditor's office. Thus far, Merrival and Rose have raised about the same amounty of money for this race and it is unclear who will be favored by more voters. Of course, Rose will be asking for the second choice support of Merrival supporters.

It seems unlikely that any candidate will receive a majority of the first choices in this race. Also, McDonald will probably receive the most first choices. Will Merrival or Rose be the first eliminated? Will the second choices of supporters of the eliminated candidate be enough to elect the Democrat?

In this race, the election is still to be decided. Voters should review their choices carefully and list both a first choice and a second choice. It should be a close race.

If McDonald wins this race and Roger Bush wins re-election, the Republicans could have a 5-2 majority on the Pierce County Council. This would be quite a bright spot in the state for Republicans.

Of course, if the Democrats carry these two races, the control of the Council would shift back to the Democrats.

Voters have a real choice in this election. The voters choice in this election will have a major impact on the composition of the County Council.

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Monday, August 04, 2008

North Carolina to expand Instant Runoff Voting to more locales

by Jordan Schrader • • published August 4, 2008 3:00 pm

Raleigh – A law signed this weekend by Gov. Mike Easley will let North Carolina's experiment with instant-runoff voting continue.

The system, also called ranked-choice voting, directs voters to rank candidates in order of preference. Voters choose backup candidates in case their favorites don't win, avoiding the need for a runoff election.

Hendersonville and Cary were the first to try the system. The state may now recruit up to 10 more local governments each year to hold similar elections, as part of an elections law sponsored by Sen. Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, and signed Saturday by Easley.

The pilot programs would end in 2011. The system could later be used statewide.

Jordan Schrader reports from Raleigh on North Carolina government. Call Jordan at 919-821-4749, e-mail or visit


Saturday, August 02, 2008

Top 2 provides little choice

Washington State Primary Has No Function in 3/4ths of Legislative Races

By Richard Winger
June 8th, 2008 , Ballot Access News blog

Washington state is using the “top-two” system for the first time this year. There are 26 State Senate seats up, and 98 State House seats up, for a total of 124 legislative races this year. Filing for the August 19 primary is now closed. Out of the 124 races, the primary is utterly meaningless in 92 races, since there are only two candidates, or only one candidate, running in 92 races.

Formerly, the Washington primary was the device by which major parties nominated their candidates, but it no longer has that function. Instead, the only function of the August 19 primary is to whittle down the number of candidates in the November election to just two. Obviously, when there are just two candidates (or just one candidate) in a particular race, there is no whittling to be done. In other words, in 74% of the legislative races this year, the primary will accomplish absolutely nothing.

Except for the gubernatorial race, there is no federal or state race this year in Washington with more than seven candidates. One wonders why the primary could not simply be canceled, so that all candidates who filed could run in November.

The total number of Democrats and Republicans running in this year’s primary for legislature is 207. Two years ago, when the state was using an open primary, there were 233 Democrats and Republicans running for the legislature. Thus, it seems one effect of the “top-two” system has been to reduce choices for Democratic and Republican voters.

For counting purposes, any candidate who used the word “Democratic” or just “D” was counted as a Democrat, even if the candidate appended other words, such as “True Democrat” or “Progressive Democrat”. Similarly, any candidate who used the term “G.O.P.” was counted as a Republican, and also any candidate who used “Republican” with other words, such as “Republican Tax Cut” was also counted as a Republican.