Instant Runoff Voting — How to Fix Much

Letters to the Portland Phoenix editors, February 8, 2013
By PORTLAND PHOENIX EDITORS  |  February 6, 2013

Al Diamon seemingly does not understand the role voting serves in the American way of life (see "How to Fix Everything," January 25). If we lived in a pure monarchy or dictatorship voting would have little meaning, for all meaningful decision making would be vested in the hands of a very few unelected leaders. In a democracy/ republic, however, voting is the mechanism by which decision making is distributed to a much greater number of participants. Though the United States Supreme Court correctly pointed out in the course of appointing George Bush president that there is no constitutional right to vote it is nonetheless true that most Americans consider voting their right, and furthermore want elections to represent "the will of the people" in providing an outcome that at least a majority of those empowered to vote selected.

It is possible to insist that an election be valid only when there is consensus. Quakers make decisions that way, and so no one ever leaves a Quaker election unhappy. In practice, however, this is impossible for large groups.

Almost all governments in the United States have gone to an opposite extreme: limiting voters to but one selection from however many options are on the ballot and then declaring as the victor the one who gets more votes than anyone else, no matter how small a percentage that may be. One-selection-only, winner-takes-all elections (OSO) are sure to please at least a majority only when there are but two options to choose from. The availability of even a third choice creates the possibility that a person can be declared the chief of state with but 39% of the vote as LePage was in 2010, or with but 38% as Baldacci was in 2006. Though we will never know, in both cases the winner did not simply have far less than a majority of the votes but was someone who, had the populace been asked which candidate they wanted least, may have actually been quite unpopular. One Selection Only, winner-takes-all elections too often do not express the will of the people, and sometimes give us a winner a majority is actually unhappy with.

There are other forms of broad-based decision making that are neither as demanding as unanimity nor as imperfect as OSO. The best known is Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). IRV can be introduced by comparing it to going out for ice cream. In conventional voting you would be asked to say what flavor you want, and if that favor is gone you lose — you get no second choice and will end up with what someone else gives you. With IRV you are able to say what flavor you would like if your first choice is gone. And what your third choice will be if the second is gone too. And so on. If the store has 31 flavors you would have the option of ranking all 31. Not everyone is going to care about every flavor, and after a point people will stop ranking and say if I can't get my fifth choice I don't care what I get, but the opportunity to express a preference is there. In this way you might not get what you most want, but you stand a better chance of not having to settle for what you want least.

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  Topics: Letters , Politics, elections
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