Antiquated runoff system does not reflect voters' views

James Wiseman // Published November 17, 2008 in Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The U.S. Senate race in Georgia is going to a runoff Dec. 2, because the Libertarian candidate, Allen Buckley, got just enough votes to prevent either the Republican Saxby Chambliss or the Democrat Jim Martin from getting a majority.

Georgia voters, many of whom waited in line for hours to cast their ballots, will have to go back to vote again. The runoff is an extra expense for a state government that is already in a budget crisis, and a serious inconvenience for every voter who will have to somehow find the time for another trip to the polling place. Many will be unable or unwilling to vote again, which means that the results will reflect the desires of a smaller proportion of the original voting population.

The problem with our voting system is obvious. On Nov. 4, each voter was asked for his or her first choice for senator. Why make us come back a month later to ask us again? Why not ask us for our first and second choices on Election Day? In the Senate race in Georgia, no one got a majority. Since Buckley came in last, he would be eliminated, and each of Buckley’s voters’ ballots would be switched to their second choices. It is exactly what happens in a runoff, except that it is done immediately, without forcing us to hold another election.

This system is called instant runoff voting. Its advantages are obvious and more and more places around the United States and the world are adopting it, including Vermont, North Carolina, Louisiana, California, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand.

In our presidential elections, there is no runoff at all, so our system can produce a winner who is clearly not the people’s preferred candidate. Fortunately, that was not the outcome last Tuesday. But in Florida in 2000, an instant runoff system would have shifted third-place Nader’s votes over to Gore, avoided the chaos of the Florida recount and the involvement of the Supreme Court and none of us would have ever heard of hanging chads. To be balanced, Bill Clinton might not have beaten George H. W. Bush in 1992 if Ross Perot’s voters had been asked about their second choice.

The problem with not holding a runoff is that voters are never asked about their second —- or third or fourth choices. Democracy means choosing a winner who best reflects the people’s preferences. How can that happen if they are never even asked about their preferences?

Our system is an absolute disaster during presidential primaries, when each party starts with half a dozen serious candidates. How can the primary election outcome accurately reflect our wishes when we list only our top choice and are not even asked about the remaining candidates? The instant runoff system asks us to rate all the candidates, and uses that information to pick that winner who best reflects our preferences.

Conventional runoff elections are at best expensive and time-consuming. The only thing worse than holding a runoff is not holding a runoff, since that can lead to an election outcome that ignores the people’s wishes.

We do not use primitive paper ballots anymore. Why are we still using a primitive election method? Instant runoff voting is a simple system that allows us to express all of our preferences to choose the best candidate, and avoids the expense, wasted time, and undemocratic results of our current system.

We have two years until the next Congressional elections and four years until the 2012 presidential election. So individual states, which establish voting procedures, have time to fix an antiquated and sometimes unfair method of counting Americans’ votes. It would be nice to see Georgia take the lead.

—- James Wiseman, associate professor of mathematics at Agnes Scott College, studies the mathematics of voting and chaos theory.