February 27th, 2009

In Praise of Instant Run-Off Voting

by Philip Baruth

Announcer: On Town Meeting Day, Burlington will use instant run-off voting for only the second time in its history. It’s not a system that everyone is comfortable with, but Commentator Philip Baruth is a convert.

Notes From the New Vermont
Commentary #227: In Praise of Instant Run-Off Voting

A couple of hours after sunrise on Tuesday, Town Meeting Day, Burlington voters are going to begin heading out to the polls, and once there they will elect a new mayor. There are four very strong candidates on the ballot – a Progressive incumbent, a centrist Democrat, a moderate Republican, and an Independent who’s made some headway by asking voters to reject party politics altogether.

Now, I’ve been watching events unfold very closely for months, and I have to face the facts: I have absolutely no idea who’ll wind up in the Mayor’s office. And it’s not just me. Nobody in town seems to have any firm idea who’s going to pull it out in the end.

This 2009 mayoral race is as close to a complete and utter crapshoot as you’ll ever find in Vermont politics.

But I can tell you this: Democrats and Progressives won’t unintentionally elect a Republican because they mistrust one another so deeply. If the Republican wins on Tuesday in Burlington, it will be because he’s appealed to a significant number of those Democrats and Progressives, not just because the Left inadvertantly split its sizeable majority here in two.

How can I be so certain? Because we’ll be using Instant Run-Off Voting.

If you’re not familiar with it, Instant Run-off Voting sounds complicated, but it’s really not. When you walk into the voting booth, the ballot asks you to rank-order your top candidates: your first place choice, second place choice, and so on. If no candidate reaches the magic threshold of 50% when the ballots are tallied, then the candidate with the lowest total is eliminated.

But the voters who strongly supported that eliminated candidate now have a second chance to influence the election – their second-place choices are figured into the totals of the remaining candidates. If no one reaches 50% in that round, then another low-performing candidate is eliminated, and so on. Eventually, someone reaches 50%, and they do so because they managed to score lots of second-place votes outside their own party.

In 2006, political scientist Tony Gierzynski conducted an extensive exit poll, and he found that over 66% of Burlington voters liked the new system better than the old, and 61% wanted it used in the Governor’s race.

And why not, really? IRV always produces a consensus winner, or at least a winner that a solid majority of voters find less objectionable than any other.

And IRV makes every candidate a de facto diplomat, at least every successful candidate. Think about it: if you know the election is probably going to be decided by moderate voters in the opposing party or parties, then Karl Rove politics – wedge issues and attacks aimed at firing up your base – are completely counter-productive.

What works most consistently?

Praising your opponent where you can, negotiating differences where you must, and filing down any sharp edges in your advertising. It’s like watching a prize-fight where the two heavyweights just sort of . . . stop hitting each other, and start talking politely to the crowd about the various differences in their boxing styles.

Not as much fun to watch, admittedly, but at least you don’t have to mop the sweat and blood off the canvas when the match is over.

[This piece aired first on Vermont Public Radio. Audio of the commentary is available here.]