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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Election Runoff

Air Date: Week of

What if you live in New Mexico and want to vote for the Green Party candidate, but on election day decide to vote for one of the two major parties, because you feel you would "waste" your vote on a third party candidate who doesn't have real a chance of winning? That dilemma is just one of the drawbacks of plurality voting rules that govern most U.S. elections. But, there is an alternative called "instant voter runoff." The Green Party in New Mexico is advocating this electoral reform . Steve Curwood asked Rob Ritchie of the Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington, D.C. to explain how it would work.


CURWOOD: So, what if you live in New Mexico and want to vote for the Green Party candidate, but on election day you feel compelled to pull the level of 1 of the 2 major parties, because you feel you would, quote, "waste your vote" on a third party candidate who doesn't have a real chance of winning. That dilemma is just one of the drawbacks of plurality voting rules that govern most US elections. But there is an alternative, called instant voter runoff. The Green Party in New Mexico is advocating this electoral reform. I asked Rob Richie of the Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington, DC, to explain how it would work.

RICHIE: It's really as easy as one-two-three. You rank your favorite candidate first, and then you say, "But my second-favorite candidate is so- and-so." So let's say that a supporter for Carol Miller in this year's race supports Tom Udall as her second choice. Then that voter would say Carol Miller first and then second choice Udall. And you would add up the first choices, and if no one has a majority, then you would say, "Let's look at the people who voted for Carol Miller as their first choice. Let's see who their second choices are," and then just move those ballots to whoever's listed second. And then once those ballots are transferred, that will push one or the other over 50% and then we have a real majority winner.

CURWOOD: Who really wins in instant runoff voting, do you think?

RICHIE: Well, in some ways you would say the voters do. They make sure that the winner is really the one that most people prefer, rather than someone sneaking in simply because the majority split its vote. But then I think they also do well to have another voice in the process, and another voice participating and talking about some issues that the major party candidates might ignore.

CURWOOD: It's very difficult to run on a third party in this country. At the Presidential level we've seen them come and go. Would this instant runoff voter change that dynamic? Would it be more possible to have third parties?

RICHIE: It would be a strong step for third parties. They would be able to participate without that spoiler tag, and therefore voters could look at them on their merits and drop all calculations about whether this candidate's really just hurting that major party candidate or the other major party candidate.

CURWOOD: Doesn't this ranking system have a tendency to confuse voters, though? I mean, ranking's kind of complicated. People might say, "Oh, I don't know what to do when I go to the polls." You might have less of a turnout.

RICHIE: Every time that we start something new, a lot of people don't understand it at the very first blink. But then they, you know, blink a couple more times and they think about it. And it really is a very simple system, and the instant runoff voting and other kind of preferential ballot systems are used in other countries, some of whom have the highest voter turnout in the world.

CURWOOD: And there's a real Presidential election in which instant runoff voting was used. This is, what, 1990 in Ireland, as I understand it?

RICHIE: That's right. They used the system in Ireland. They used it in '97 and they used it in 1990 in a Presidential election that -- people generally don't follow Irish politics, but this was one that caught more people's eye. Because Mary Robinson was elected, the first woman president of Ireland. And what's interesting is the vote almost mirrored exactly what happened in New Mexico in 97. There was a candidate that had about 44% in first choices and then Mary Robinson had about 38 or 39%, you know, several percentage points behind. And then another candidate who had about 15%. And if it had been a plurality election, then that male candidate would have won and that would have been the end of it. But because it was an instant runoff vote, they therefore transferred the ballots cast for that candidate who had only 15% and most of those people turned out to have supported Mary Robinson over the male candidate. And she won with something like 52%. And you can sort of think about the different parts of that: the candidate that got 15% was not punished for participating. The voters who supported that candidate were not punished for supporting that candidate. And ultimately the candidate with the true majority support won.

CURWOOD: Rob Richie is Executive Director of the Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington, DC. Thanks for joining us.

RITCHIE: Sure. Thank you.



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