What's so wrong with IRV?

Brattleboro Reformer Editorial // Published April 8, 2008 in Brattleboro Reformer
To the surprise of no one, Gov. James Douglas vetoed two election reform bills late Friday afternoon.

Douglas rejected a bill that would have set new campaign finance limits and another that would have allowed instant runoff voting for Vermont congressional elections with three or more candidates.

It was not surprising because the Republican Party has never been interested in any measure that would break the stranglehold of big money in politics. Nor has the Republican Party been interested in any measure that would give third parties a chance.

We'll leave aside campaign finance reform for now, since that bill never really stood a chance. As long as the U.S. Supreme Court equates money with political speech, it's difficult for any change to the current system to pass judicial scrutiny.

There are no excuses, however, for Douglas to veto instant runoff voting (IRV), which allows voters to rank the candidates in an election race based on preference.

IRV is not complicated. When votes are cast, all votes applied to the first choices on the ballot are tabulated and the candidate with the most votes wins.

If no candidate receives a majority of the votes, the candidate receiving the fewest votes is eliminated and a "runoff" tabulation begins. In the runoff, your vote still goes to the candidate you ranked first on your ballot, unless that candidate was eliminated. In that case, your vote goes to your second choice on the ballot.

This system of eliminating the lowest candidate and recounting the votes continues until one candidate has a majority of the votes. Each time, your vote is applied to the candidate you ranked highest who still in the running.

The main appeal of IRV is that it allows voters to give their support to a candidate they like best, even if that candidate has no chance of winning, without the fear that they are throwing their vote away or taking support away from a more popular candidate. Your ballot counts even after your favorite candidate is eliminated, so every voter has a say in the process.

So, why is there so much resistance to this simple idea?

For starters, the Republicans don't want to see anything that improves the chances of third parties to succeed. IRV would instantly eliminate the whole "spoiler" scenario that cripples voters who want to vote for a Progressive, Liberty Union or independent candidate, but are afraid to do because it would increase the chances of seeing a candidate they don't want to win get elected.

There are others that say it is too complicated and would confuse voters. Burlington used IRV in its last mayoral election in 2006, and it worked smoothly. Other cities around the country have used IRV without incident.

In a state like Vermont, where third parties are an established part of the political landscape, and voters are used to casting their ballots for candidates outside the major parties, instant runoff voting is a sensible idea.

Unfortunately, Douglas doesn't agree and there don't seem to be enough votes to override his veto.

We think Douglas is wrong. We think IRV should be used, not just for congressional races, but for every election at the local and state level in Vermont. Imagine how, say, the Brattleboro Selectboard election might have turned out this year if IRV was in place?

Instant runoff voting strengthens third parties. It eliminates the risk of additional candidates in a race undermining support for the most popular candidate. It allows the will of a majority of voters to be reflected at the polls, no matter how many candidates are running. What's not to like?