'Instant runoff' voting deserves a closer look

// Published December 2, 2008 in Athens Banner-Herald
The past month has been as convincing an argument as any that Georgia officials should seriously consider ranked-choice balloting, better known as "instant runoff" voting, as the electoral standard in Georgia.

Ever since the Nov. 4 election left Georgians without a majority-vote winner in the three-way contest for incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss' seat in the U.S. Senate, people across the state have been treated to a barrage of more-heat-than-light television campaign ads and slick, oversized mailers from Chambliss and Democratic challenger Jim Martin.

Though the two were fraternity brothers at the University of Georgia, their conduct has been anything but brotherly as they've scrapped to get their supporters back to the polls for today's runoff election, and the early voting period that preceded it. Voters have been caught in the crosshairs of the monthlong media assault, a circumstance that likely has any number of voters wondering whether either candidate truly deserves their vote.

Voters are in this predicament because Georgia is the only state that requires the winner of a general election to obtain a majority - 50 percent plus one vote - in balloting. When all the votes were counted for the Nov. 4 general election, Chambliss had 49.8 percent of the vote, with Martin claiming 46.8 percent. The remaining 3.4 percent of ballots went to Libertarian candidate Allen Buckley.

Now, in addition to being subjected to the indignity that is the modern political campaign ad for a month after the issue might have been decided, Georgia taxpayers will be footing the bill for a runoff election. Today's runoff in all likelihood will bring only a fraction of people to the polls that the general election, featuring a history-making presidential contest at the top of the ballot, brought out to vote.

What that means is that, however today's balloting might turn out, a smaller percentage of voters will make the ultimate decision on a U.S. Senate seat. As state Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton, put it in comments published in Monday's Atlanta Journal-Constitution that could have been made on behalf of either candidate in today's runoff, "There is the question of should 51 percent of 10 percent of the voters trump 49 percent of five times that number."

Instant-runoff voting is a way to ensure that mathematical conundrum isn't part of the electoral process. Instant runoffs are already in place for all voters - or at least some categories of voters such as those serving overseas in the military - in a number of state and local jurisdictions across the country.

While the specifics of such ranked-choice balloting vary, instant-runoff voting basically asks voters to rank their choices among all candidates running for a particular office. If no candidate achieves a majority in initial balloting, the second choices on ballots cast for the candidate getting the lowest number of votes are then counted.

Here's how such a scheme could have worked in Georgia's Nov. 4 election: Because he received the lowest number of votes, elections officials would have tallied the second choices on Libertarian Allen Buckley's ballots, which would have been either Chambliss or Martin. With both Republican Chambliss and Democrat Martin so close to achieving a majority vote, it's likely that tallying the second choices on Buckley's ballots would have produced a winner. That winner would have been determined without the expense and aggravation of a runoff election, and would have represented the clear will of a significant number of voters, rather than the will of the relatively fewer voters casting runoff ballots.

There are, of course, any number of questions that should be answered before any serious push for instant-runoff voting begins in Georgia, not the least of which are whether it might be too confusing for some voters, and whether it would present any problems for electronic voting machines with regard to accurate tabulation and reporting. It's also important to remember that, under the federal Voting Rights Act, any changes to the electoral system in Georgia would have to pass federal scrutiny before being implemented.

But if there is a chance that instant-runoff voting could ensure election results would accurately reflect the preferences of a wide majority of voters, and could engender more interest in general elections, it's an idea worth exploring in Georgia's halls of government.