KC Group Wants to Change Voting System

// Published November 13, 2008 in NBC
KANSAS CITY, Mo -- The next time you go to the polls, imagine if the ballot looked completely different.

A group called Kansas City for Ranked Choice Voting wants to change the way people cast their ballots. Ranked Choice Voting or Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) as it's also known, requires political candidates to receive a true majority of the votes in an election. Right now, candidates only have to receive more votes than the rest of their opponents to win, but not necessarily at least 50-percent of the ballots.

Supporters of IRV say it can save cities money because it eliminates the need for primary elections. In Kansas City, that would save $500,000 according to the election board.

"A second advantage is you eliminate what they call the 'spoiler effect' where a third-party candidate or two candidates with similar ideas pull votes away from each other," said Eric Barr, who leads Kansas City for Ranked Choice Voting.

Barr and his group hope to get IRV implemented in Kansas City municipal elections, either by approval from the City Council or from the petition process.

Opponents of the voting system say it really does not offer cost savings because of money spent buying different voting machines and the time needed to teach people how the format works.

"The main argument is voter confusion," said Dr. Beth Miller, a political science professor at the UMKC. "You really have to do a serious voter education campaign in order to overcome that."

Barr admits there could be obstacles before IRV is widely accepted, but he thinks it is only a matter of time before it becomes the standard way to hold elections. Right now, it is common in some European countries. San Francisco has used IRV in several elections and Minneapolis plans to start using the system in its 2009 elections.

"Every time it's been on the ballot in cities across the country, it's passed so I think people understand it makes sense," Barr said.

Kansas City for Ranked Choice Voting is hosting a mock election at the Kansas City Library, 4801 Main Street, on Thursday night at 7 p.m. The event is intended to educate citizens about how IRV works.

FairVote is a political organization that supports IRV and put together an online animated video that Barr plans to use in his presentation.

Miller said it is still unclear if IRV boost turnout numbers. For instance, she points to the previous Kansas City mayoral election in 2007. About 44 percent of voters turned out for the primary when there were 12 candidates. That number jumped to 66 percent when Mark Funkhouser squared off against Alvin Brooks in the general election the following month.

"I would say (IRV) has as good a shot as any other electoral reform in the United States... which is not a very good shot," Miller said.