An Elections Revolution

Tony Marrero // Published May 27, 2008 in Hernando Today
BROOKSVILLE - During one of the ultimate exercises of democratic freedom, Bill Gilbert says he feels constrained.
"My hands are tied when I go into the voting booth, and I don't like that," says Gilbert, 50, of Weeki Wachee. "I'm always frustrated that I can't vote my pleasure."
So when Gilbert heard there is a movement afoot to upend the plurality election system entrenched in America since the 18th century, he said he knew he had to join.
Now he's leading an effort to let voters in the city of Brooksville decide if they'd like to use instant runoff voting for city elections. The goal is to secure the signatures of 492 voters — or 10 percent of the city's 4,920 registered voters — to put the new system on the ballot in November.
Instant runoff voting is a radical departure from the current plurality system where voters pick only one candidate, but one that Gilbert says voters take a liking to when he explains it.
"I always thought there was something wrong with the system when you go into the voting booth and you have several choices and can only pick one," said Gilbert, a Miami native and real estate investor.
The cities of San Francisco, Burlington, Vt., and Tacoma Park, Md., currently use the system. It has been endorsed by The League of Women Voters in Florida and at least five other states, according to the Coalition for Runoff Voting in Florida, or CIRV. CIRV is a political action committee that collected enough signatures to get the system on the ballot in the city of Sarasota last November.
Here's how instant runoff voting works:
Say there are three candidates are on the ballot for the city council race — Sanders, Franklin and Lopez. Voters rank the candidates in order of their preference. They can still select just one candidate if they wish.
If one of the candidates gets a majority of the votes, that candidate takes the seat. But say Sanders gets 46 percent of the vote, Franklin gets 44 percent and Lopez just 10 percent.
Lopez is eliminated, but the second choices on ballots that had Lopez as the top pick are transferred to the candidates still in the race. That process continues until one of the remaining candidates gets a majority.
IRV advocates point out that this does away with one of the more troubling aspects of plurality elections: A candidate can win a seat without securing a majority of the votes. The system also saves time and money spent for runoff elections, they say.
And then there is the negation, or at least the reduction, of the so-called spoiler effect that is perpetuated, runoff voting advocates contend, by the domination of the two-party system.
One of the best-known cases is that of consumer activist Ralph Nader, who was much maligned by the Democratic Party for "taking" votes from Al Gore in 2000, resulting in a narrow victory for George W. Bush. Eight years prior, Texas billionaire Ross Perot also presented what many voters considered a viable third option to Republican George H.W. Bush and Democratic nominee Bill Clinton.
Many voters who might have supported a candidate such as Nader or Perot, however, opt for the major party candidate because they fear they are "wasting" their vote on a candidate that is likely a long shot at best, Gilbert said. Voters compromise to avoid helping to elect a candidate they would least like to win.
In instant runoff voting, "You vote your pleasure and if your candidate loses, your second choice counts," Gilbert says. "No worrying about spoilers, splitters or throwing away your vote."

Why Brooksville?
As a result of Car's efforts, 78 percent of Sarasota voters said they wanted to use the system in future municipal elections. It's unclear, however, when the system will actually be used, said Anthony Lorenzo, a Sarasota resident and chairman of CIRV.
One hurdle is technological. There currently is no software to efficiently implement instant runoff voting, Lorenzo said. The city of San Francisco is making do by using optical scanning machines to scan ballots multiple times to count up voters' second and third choices.
But in Sarasota, CIRV had to compromise with the supervisor of elections, who pushed for language that states that instant runoff voting will be implemented only when the Florida Secretary of State certifies software and hardware for the process. So far, companies such as Diebold have said there isn't enough demand yet to put a lot of energy into developing the technology, Lorenzo said.
There's another obstacle.
The Secretary of State has an administrative rule that states voters must pick only one candidate in a race. That will have to be changed, too, Lorenzo said. It could be done by the Secretary of State, but CIRV is in the process of lobbying legislators to help push the process along, Lorenzo said. So far, the group is finding little support.
That puts more pressure on the grassroots effort. "It seems more imperative to show massive support for IRV," Lorenzo said.
And that brings CIRV to Brooksville.
The group hopes to show support for instant runoff voting by getting it approved in four Florida cities. Brooksville has an eager activist in Gilbert and the city is small, which makes it easier for a grassroots campaign, Lorenzo said. CIRV hasn't picked the other two cities, but Tallahassee is under consideration because that would likely help put the effort on the radar of legislators.
Brooksville Mayor David Pugh said he hadn't heard of instant runoff voting, but was intrigued after a quick primer. "It's interesting," he said. "I'll have to take a look at it."