We need instant runoff voting: It's time for election reform

Third Parties

Third Parties Photo by Lucinda Li

Once upon a time, the United States was referred to as “a city upon a hill.”

A Puritan leader in New England during the 1630s by the name of John Winthrop first invoked this religious metaphor to describe early North American colonial society as a moral and democratic example for the rest of the world. This term would be used and reused over the ages by figures touting American exceptionalism as a way to emphasize a supposed ethical high ground.

Today, after a harrowing year that featured a federal government shutdown on top of pre-existent budget cuts due to sequestration, our democracy is anything but an example to the rest of the world. An example of deep partisan divides, inefficiency, and stagnant political thought, maybe. But not of a well-functioning democracy.

The need for reform — either at the local, state, federal, or constitutional level — is obvious, and a possible solution sits right in front of our faces here at the UW. We’ve been using Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) in ASUW elections since 2006 to great effect. It’s time we take our system to the state at large.

IRV allows for the selection of the overall best candidate by each voter ranking all choices available for a position, from best to worst. This ranked-choice method is more inclusive and allows each vote to say more than just a selection of option A or option B.

For those who don’t know, IRV operates by eliminating the candidate with the smallest number of first-choice votes and dispersing those votes to their second choices, and then repeating until one candidate receives a majority. Theoretically, this candidate-elect would have the greatest support from a wide range of voters.

In contrast, the current national system awards victory to the candidate who simply has one more vote than the rest -— in many cases, a candidate with less than half of the votes will still win office. With a win like that, it is hard to say that the elected candidate really has the will of the people or is accountable to the majority of the population.

This presents a problem: Candidates orient their platforms to a fraction of voters, not the whole body. Specifically targeted appeal makes for good electoral strategy but bad governance, as we’ve seen in recent years. There are abundant examples in the last year of this playing out to hilarious proportions. One of the most notable was the Tea Party extremists’ grip on the Republican Party that ultimately led to the government shutdown.

The remedy for this persistent problem could be IRV.

Additionally, ranked voting would make the playing field friendlier to candidates other than the two usually opposed options from the Democrat and Republican sides. With IRV, a voter can select a third-party candidate without fear that their vote will be wasted, which is the current case. The success of our own city councilmember-elect Kshama Sawant is evidence that it is time to be more open to the growing relevance of third parties.

Washington’s 2013 primary elections drew in a sad 26 percent. With IRV, we wouldn’t need primary elections anymore — every single candidate could be ranked at once. Cutting out primaries could save thousands of dollars and bring more voters in.

Pierce County attempted a transition to IRV in 2006, but software bugs plagued the implementation of the new voting system, and it was quickly rejected. Considering the technological advances made in the last decade, I’d say that now the software could be perfected, especially if developers were given adequate time to prepare and test the new system.

A transition to statewide or nationwide use of IRV would certainly cost money, but that money would be well spent and possibly counteracted by a reduction of primary election cost.

Continuing to reform election policy will make our government more transparent and more democratic. I know personally that many people who don’t vote today are discouraged by two-party gridlock and perceived hopelessness in achieving change. With a more transparent, inclusive, and democratic system, more voters will participate.

Exit polls conducted in San Francisco after implementation of IRV showed that 67 percent of those interviewed preferred IRV to their previous primary runoff system. A similar test in Seattle or Washington state as a whole would likely yield the same positive results.

Instituting a trial run of IRV on a larger scale could lead to more streamlined and democratic elections and ultimately to a more effective government. With so little to lose and so much to gain, the choice is clear: It’s time for the United States to become a leading example of democracy again.


Reach Opinion Editor Josh Waugh at opinion@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @Joshawaugh

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