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Instant runoff voting gives voters more choices

by Shirley Kressel
contributing writer
Thursday Feb 4, 2010
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On every political level, federal, state and local, this country is going through some extraordinary turmoil. The latest upset in the Massachusetts Senate election, throwing the "Kennedy seat" to a Republican, is part of the same whiplash that put Democrats into the presidential and state gubernatorial offices. Other upcoming races are looking contentious and surprise outcomes are likely. The electorate is like a bucking bronco-trying to throw anyone in the rider’s seat, regardless of party. We can’t vote for "none of the above" (yet) but we can just keep "throwing the bums out" until someone gets the message: we don’t trust our politicians, we don’t trust our political system, and we’ll give you a chance but if you’re like the rest, out you go, party be damned, until we get some real public servants into office who will tell us the truth, and do what we need done.

We know that the two-party system has limited our choices to Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee, both versions of the same basic program. And however little real competition they provide, in Massachusetts we don’t even have that; it’s a one-party state. We know that money has corrupted the system; candidates start their terms already beholden to campaign donors, past and potential. The Supreme Court ruling expanding corporations’ ability to pour money into politics is just another step, and perhaps an inevitable one, in fusing government with business, to the detriment of the populace.

But without party machines and big money, fresh, untainted candidates can’t get a foothold. They have trouble getting nomination signatures, media attention, donations from citizens fearing incumbent retribution, and basic credibility among voters. Ironically, they are dismissed out-of-hand as nobodies, unknowns, even as the public clamors for fresh blood, fresh faces, fresh ideas from people who are "unbought and unbossed," as Shirley Jackson used to say.

Even if dark-horse candidates take the trouble to run, and present appealing platforms and ideas, they are sidelined on voting day, because with our winner-take-all system, their fans are afraid to vote for them-they might siphon votes from the likelier mainstream candidate of the closer ideology and split the vote, throwing victory to the other side. Let’s call it, for shorthand, the "Nader Effect," although Ralph Nader wasn’t really responsible for Al Gore’s loss to George Bush.

In fact, such candidates even draw hostility as "spoilers," and are asked to drop out if the race looks close, to let the titans battle without leaks in the voter pools. Any candidate who qualifies to be on the ballot (and that’s another door that should be made more easily entered) is entitled, and should be welcomed, to run; the two dominant parties do not have an exclusive right to our political arena. Third parties and outside candidates should be encouraged, to get new ideas and more accountability.

How can we ever break free of this political duopoly and hold them both accountable with a credible threat of a third-party (or no-party) victory? How can we get different kinds of people in without making a different kind of system?

The solution is not to shut out candidates but to enact ranked-choice voting, also called "instant runoff" voting, which lets every voter send the message s/he wants to express about platform preferences, but does not create the "spoiler" effect. Voters can rank their dark-horse favorite first, and then can rank as their second choice the candidate they’d prefer among those likelier to win. If the dark horse comes in out-of-the-running, the votes s/he got are automatically redistributed to the designated second choice candidates, and the votes are automatically re-counted until the winner emerges. No votes are "wasted," all political messages are clearly sent, and the voters get the candidate closest to what they want. Importantly, everyone, including the winner, is informed about the voters’ wishes based on their first-ranked choices, so the victor has to pay attention to the ideas of the candidates whose votes helped him/her prevail. And sometimes, the dark horse will actually win, because enough people liked him/her and weren’t afraid to rank her/him first. It seems so obviously better-it should be mandatory in all races. Of course, the established candidates and parties don’t want this to happen. But the voters should. It’s non-partisan, just as applicable to liberals, conservatives, or any other group. And it saves the cost of primaries.

Ranked-choice voting is already working in several cities, including Cambridge and San Francisco. We should enact it in Boston. If we’d had instant runoff voting in our last mayoral election, for example, it’s likely that Sam Yoon would have received the second-choice votes of the Kevin McCrea voters, and thus would have been the candidate running against Menino. And the real number of voters endorsing McCrea’s platform would have been known, to help shape the Yoon platform.

Massachusetts would be the first to implement it on the state level. Several bills have been filed to do so since 2005 by a group of good-government legislators, but have not been successful. Because entrenched powers will fight this in the State House, an initiative to collect petition signatures is being organized by a group of good-government advocates to get it on the ballot at the 2012 state elections.

Learn about ranked-choice voting; there’s a lot of information online. Voter Choice Massachusetts has a very informative website. Join up to collect signatures, sign the petition sheets when they come around, and get this question on the ballot. Then we can have fresh faces and ideas at every election, without fear of spoilers, wasted votes, and misunderstood mandates for the winners.

Shirley Kressel is a landscape architect and urban designer, and one of the founders of the Alliance of Boston Neighborhoods. She can be reached at Shirley.Kressel@verizon.net.

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