IRV: beyond the top-two primary

Richard Anderson-Connolly // Published August 27, 2008 in Seattle Times
The current debate over whether the top-two primary violates party rights, confuses voters, or props up the secretary of state as the restorer of the blanket primary misses the real point. The discussion should focus on the fact that the top-two primary is completely unnecessary.

A primary election can do two things. First, it can select the nominee of each party who will move to the general election. Second, it can simply reduce the number of candidates in the second election.

The top-two primary only attempts the latter. It lacks any nominating function by taking a potentially crowded field and reducing it to two candidates.

Although the parties may not like the top-two primary, this system has one appealing outcome: It produces majority winners. That's a big improvement over both the blanket and the pick-a-party systems, where majority rule was not a requirement.

When three or more candidates are in a race, it is possible for the winner to earn less than 50 percent of the vote. In a three-way race, the two candidates who are most similar can easily split the support of a majority and let the other candidate win with a plurality.

The most famous recent example is the 2000 presidential election in Florida. The majority vote split and Ralph Nader, despite his denials, spoiled the election. If Florida had used a top-two primary, then the Nader voters probably would have gone for Gore in the general. Of course, spoiling goes both ways. The Libertarians have cost Republicans a few races here in Washington.

In any case, we don't want a system in which the strategy is to split the majority vote and let the wrong candidate sneak in.

The top-two primary plus a general election is known as runoff voting. There is another option to the top-two approach that achieves a majority winner in one election ­ instant-runoff voting (IRV).

In an instant runoff, as opposed to a traditional runoff, voters can rank the candidates on the ballot. In every round, a vote counts toward the voter's highest ranked candidate still in the race. Candidates are eliminated beginning with the one in last place.

Take for example the Bush-Gore-Nader race. With IRV, Nader supporters could have put Nader first and Gore second. Because no candidate would have initially received a majority (Bush won Florida with less than 50 percent of the vote), Nader would have been eliminated from contention. Then the ballots would have been counted again. The first-place rankings of Bush and Gore would have stayed but the Nader supporters' votes would have gone to their second choice, Gore. Under IRV, Gore would have won with a majority.

Because the major parties and Secretary of State Sam Reed are focused on the wrong issues, many voters may not be aware that IRV will occur right here in our state. Pierce County voters approved IRV in 2006 and will use it for the first time this November for most county offices, including the executive and County Council. In Pierce County, instant-runoff voting is also called, with good reason, ranked-choice voting (RCV).

Pierce County is the only place in the state where voters will choose from more than two candidates in any race in November. The executive race, for example, has four strong candidates. Yet, the winner will have a majority and no candidate will be a spoiler. In addition, the county didn't have to run a primary for these offices.

Washington would save millions of dollars each election cycle by moving to IRV and eliminating the primary. Plus, voters would have more choice in the November election when participation is highest.

The only downside is the cost of moving to the new system. Equipment might need to be purchased, as it was in Pierce County. And some money must be spent on voter education so that ballots are properly marked.

Yet these costs will be paid for ultimately by eliminating the primary. IRV in San Francisco eliminated a runoff election and has already paid for itself. Every election cycle now brings pure savings.

The other objections to IRV don't stand up. Voters are not confused by rankings. IRV doesn't require touch-screen, black-box voting. And the system has a proven record: Voters in Ireland and Australia have been using IRV for more than 60 years.

IRV is also legal. An instant runoff does not violate one person, one vote any more than the traditional runoff. Many people in Washington voted for a candidate in the primary who won't be on the general-election ballot. Yet everybody gets to vote again. This is tantamount to stating a first choice in the primary and a second choice in the general.

If we are ready to move beyond the primary as a nominating election ­ and most voters don't seem too concerned about the insult to the party insiders ­ then we can actually dispense with the primary altogether. Ranked-choice voting in Pierce County shows the way forward.

Richard Anderson-Connolly is associate professor of comparative sociology at the University of Puget Sound and vice president of Ranked Choice Voting Washington.