An electoral reform worth considering

Frank Askin // Published March 16, 2009 in New Jersey Law Journal

Instant runoff voting is an idea whose time has come -- and maybe even to New Jersey.

IRV would not only save money in certain local elections; it would prohibit the election of candidates with less than a majority vote. A positive side effect might be to strengthen third-party and independent candidates, who are now virtually shut out of the two-party system.

IRV helps voters to elect their second choices in multi-candidate races. It would undoubtedly have allowed Al Gore to win Florida's electoral votes in 2000 and thus become president.

Under IRV, voters cast a ballot for their favorite choice as well as for specific runoff choices in order of preference. So in Florida 2000, the nearly 100,000 Ralph Nader voters could have marked their second choice as well. Most of those second-choice votes would have probably gone to Gore and wiped out George W. Bush's few hundred vote advantage. If Minnesota had IRV in 2008, it is unlikely it would still be counting ballots in the U.S. Senate race. Independent candidate Dean Barkley's 15 percent of the vote would have been divided among the Barkley supporters' second choices, and the state almost certainly would have elected a senator.

In New Jersey, it would allow our election laws to be revised to require election by a majority vote without requiring an expensive, runoff election. Now, in multi-candidate contests, a candidate can win with only a plurality of the vote. Where some municipal elections require a majority vote under current law, IRV would do away with the expense of a runoff.

For minor parties, it would provide a new lease on life. They would no longer have to lose votes under a "lesser evil" philosophy. Their supporters could confidently vote for them, while protecting their votes for their second choice. It would allow minor parties to demonstrate their true level of support and advance their legislative programs by pointing to the crucial support they provided for the victorious candidate.

IRV is receiving increasing acceptance around the world and in the United States. It is used in Australia, the Republic of Ireland and in London municipal elections. In the United States, it has been adopted for municipal elections in San Francisco; Springfield, Ill.; Burlington, Vt.; Cambridge, Mass.; and Takoma Park, Md., among others. It is due to be implemented in Aspen, Colo.; Berkeley, Calif.; Minneapolis; and Oakland, Calif. Arkansas, Louisiana and South Carolina allow its use by overseas voters.

Sen. Bill Baroni, R-Mercer, has introduced Senate Joint Resolution 43 to create a bipartisan commission to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of IRV and the type of voting equipment and ballots needed. The panel would then recommend whether IRV should be adopted in New Jersey.

The commission would consist of the superintendents of elections of the state's two most populous counties; two county clerks appointed by the governor from different political parties; two Democratic and two Republican members of the Legislature; and two members of the general public with expertise in the area of elections, to be appointed by the majority and minority leaders of the Senate and Assembly.

The commission would be required to hold three public hearings in various parts of the state and to report back to the Legislature within six months of its initial organizational meeting.

SJR 43 poses a great opportunity for New Jersey to take a step in avoiding costly runoffs and making the playing field fairer for third-party candidates.