Opinion: Instant runoff election is an option for political reform

Can political polarization be fixed with an electoral reform measure?  The proponents of Proposition 14 say that their ballot proposal will do the trick. Eliminating party labels during the primaries will elect more moderates they say.  

A new and promising election reform measure, Instant Runoff Voting (Ranked Choice Voting) claims to accomplish the same feat, only differently.  It does not require the candidate to hide his political affiliation.

Here’s how it works. Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) is a method of voting that determines a majority winner in a single election, no matter how many candidates are running. It combines a regular election and a runoff between the top candidates in one election.

Each voter has the option of ranking candidates in order of choice (1, 2, 3, etc).  If no candidate receives a majority of 50 perecent plus one at the first round of counting, the candidate receiving the least amount of support is eliminated, but his/her number 2 votes are then transferred to the appropriate remaining candidates. This process is repeated until one candidate receives 50 perecent plus one of the votes. Interactive sites demonstrating the process can be found on the web.

Just how do more civil campaigns come about? At a recent meeting in Oakland sponsored by The New America Foundation, the topic of How to Campaign using IRV or Ranked Choice Voting was debated. Phil Ting, elected as county assessor under the new system, and several political consultants, including Jon Golinger and Jim Stearns, were part of the panel discussing the changes in campaign styles over the years since the inception of IRV.  The entire panel agreed that political campaigning in San Francisco had changed for the better. The reason was simple: Each candidate knows that he/she may need the second or third place votes of other candidates and that he/she will not get them if he/she attacks those being campaigned against. The need to point out policy differences rather than to attack the opponent becomes all important.  The panelists experienced this phenomenon.

There are other reasons to support IRV.  It cuts the cost and time of electioneering for candidates.  It eliminates a costly runoff for the city.   More importantly, it eliminates low turnout primaries where fringe candidates are likely to win their party’s nomination. It also eliminates the “spoiler” effect which is the splitting of the votes of two popular candidates and allowing a weaker candidate to win.  This may be a problem with Proposition 14.

For more information on IRV or Ranked Choice voting refer to “Fixing elections” by Steven Hill, the New America Foundation.  Wikipedia also has a very comprehensive discussion on this topic.

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