Larry R. Bradley and Rob Richie: To increase voter turnout, try a more efficient election process

LARRY R. BRADLEY AND ROB RICHIE // Published May 5, 2009 in Omaha World-Herald
Bradley, of Omaha, wrote the book “Neither Liberal Nor Conservative Be.” Richie is the executive director of FairVote. Headquartered in Takoma Park, Md., FairVote is an advocacy group that supports electoral-policy changes including universal voter registration, a national popular vote for president, instant runoff voting and proportional representation.

Last Nov. 4 was a historic day for democracy in Omaha and Douglas County — 228,916 voters (72.6 percent) went to the polls to make their voices heard.

If only the same could be said for the mayoral primary election held last month.

That April 7 election saw turnout plunge to only about 18 percent of registered Omaha voters. There are low projections for voter turnout in the general election next Tuesday, yet the cost to taxpayers will be the same as or higher than the April 7 primary.

Turnout declines in nonpresidential and primary elections are typical. A recent FairVote report, “Federal Primary Election Runoffs and Voter Turnout Decline, 1994-2008,” found that voter turnout declined in 113 of the 116 regularly scheduled federal primary runoffs since 1994, on average by 35 percent.

What’s more, Omaha residents have been forced to endure an additional five weeks of campaigning that almost immediately went negative and probably changed few minds. Once political races are reduced to two candidates, the attacks increase because voters have only two options.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We’re in the 21st century, and Omaha could replace its traditional approach to majority elections with Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). IRV determines a majority winner in one efficient election. In other words, if Omaha had IRV, then Omaha would have chosen its next mayor among three candidates on April 7. There would be no runoff election next week.

Voters gain the option to rank candidates in order of preference rather than select only one choice. If no candidate wins with a first-choice majority, the two candidates with the most votes advance to the instant runoff. Ballots cast for eliminated candidates are added to the totals of the runoff candidates according to which runoff candidate is ranked next on the ballot. That’s all there is to it.

Instant runoff voting is used in many private organizations because it is recommended in Robert’s Rules of Order. Active backers include President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. John McCain. It has been adopted to replace two rounds of voting in jurisdictions that include Florida, Colorado, California, Minnesota, North Carolina, New Mexico and Tennessee.

Instant runoff voting offers many advantages over delayed runoffs:

• Taxpayers would save time and money. Traditional runoffs are costly. Reducing the number of election days allows administrators to spend their resources more efficiently. Taxpayers would have to visit the polling place only once.

• Candidates are less likely to be indebted to special-interest contributors. Right now, candidates often fight to make the runoff and then find their campaigns strapped for cash — triggering a scramble for more money that all too easily leads to the potential for ethical abuses.

• All votes will count, and the winner gets a majority. By combining the two rounds of the runoff, IRV ensures maximum turnout in one decisive election.

In partisan elections, instant runoff voting permits people to vote for third-party candidates without spoiling majority winners. This way, third-party supporters could vote their true preference, without having to worry about spoiling the candidate they prefer among the remaining contenders.

But that’s a separate decision to make. Right now, the logical place to switch to IRV is in mayoral elections. By adopting its use in local elections, Omaha can lead the way for Nebraska to adopt Instant Runoff Voting for state and federal primaries.