Instant runoff voting, as explained by Nirvana’s bass player

Let’s get back to talking about democracy by turning to Krist Novoselic, who’s an interesting dude to say the least. Although he first made a name for himself by playing bass in one of the most vital bands in history, he went on to become rather active in Washington State politics, particularly as an advocate for electoral reform and grassroots political action. These days, in fact, he’s the board chairperson for a terrific organization called FairVote.

He discussed his life and his ideas in an engaging book called Of Grunge and Government. Published in 2004, it’s a brief but inspiring read, and it lays out a number of great ideas for electoral reform in particular.

For example, I’d like to quote a passage in the book that deals with instant runoff voting, a compelling electoral system that would arguably be a welcome alternative to our first past the post system. Note that Novoselic is describing IRV within the context of the American political system, but the general principles could still be applied to our own parliamentary democracy. In fact, after the passage, let’s take a look at how our recent mayoral election might have gone if we’d used the IRV system.

“Instant runoff voting, or IRV, can accommodate more choices in elections and promises to be popular simply because it saves voters’ time – and taxpayers’ money – by folding the function of a qualifying primary election into the general. IRV also protects privacy because there is no primary to declare affiliation.

“With IRV, you vote for candidates in order of preference. In a field of four candidates, for example, you mark the ballot with a first choice, second choice, third choice, and fourth choice. As with any ballot, you can also choose not to vote for a candidate or candidates. If a candidate wins the majority of first choices, the election is over. If not, the instant runoff goes into effect and determines the majority winner. In a nutshell, the candidate wins who has the best balance of strong first-choice support and strong support as a second and possibly third choice. IRV remedies the problem of spoiler candidates and wasted votes. A constituent is free to vote his or her conscience and not worry about pre-election polls. She could vote for a third party, Independent, or outspoken major-party candidate as a first choice, and put a more cautious major-party candidate as second. People wouldn’t feel compelled to picket Ralph Nader appearances anymore.

“IRV not only accommodates electoral coalitions, it actually encourages them. Third parties could come in from the wilderness. People would be less cynical because they’d feel like their vote counted. Candidates would be more careful about engaging in negative advertising because they would want second-choice support too. Moderate candidates would tread lightly on the politically fruitful territory of the centrist voter. If IRV does benefit any kind of candidate, moderates tend to collect second- and third- choice support from the ideological margins of their respective constituencies. Some people ask if this method violates the principle of ‘one person, one vote,’ but it doesn’t – every voter has one vote in each round of counting, just as in our current system. Primary elections, in fact, are already a process of winnowing candidates. I’ve voted for a different candidate in the primary than in the general election; that was effectively two votes, or choices, in the same election…

“IRV… eliminates the lowest vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, and distributes those chocies until a majority winner is tabulated. Like other winner-take-all elections, it has a drawback. Due to the particular tabulation method, in a three-way race that requires an instant runoff, the candidate with the most second choices could be eliminated. Even so, IRV has more benefits for voters than stand-alone, exclusive primaries. It saves time and money, preserves privacy while protecting the free-association rights of parties. And most importantly, IRV gives voters more real choices…

“People can be cautious about change, regardless of how much sense it makes. But once people become comfortable with IRV on a local level, it’ll be an easy consideration for state and federal races, particularly when there’s widespread perception in a given state that a key race was only won because of a spoiler. Instant Runoff Voting is an innovation that will reduce the barriers inhibiting participation, and could play a major role in reigniting democracy in the U.S.”

But what about Canada? What about Toronto? How might our recent mayoral election have gone if we’d voted using an instant runoff ballot?

Well, first of all, it’s still pretty likely that Ford would have won. Say what you will about our mayor-elect, but an awful lot of people voted for him. Even if all of the votes for Smitherman and Pantalone combined had gone towards a single candidate, it still would have been a very close race.

But in many respects, it would have been a more dignified and engaging race. For one thing, there would have been no talk of Pantalone being a spoiler candidate. There would have been no talk of voting with your head or your heart. There would have been no talk about a vote for this guy being a vote for that guy. But there might have been a lot more talk about issues and solutions – particularly from Smitherman, the moderate candidate.

Why? Well, for the sake of easy math, let’s say that Pantalone, Smitherman and Ford were the only three contenders. Under the IRV system, when they counted up the votes and discovered that Ford was leading with less than fifty percent, they would have taken Pantalone out of the running. Then there would be a second round of voting, in which the second choices of everyone who voted for Pantalone would be counted. Assuming that there were little to no Pantalone voters out there who considered Ford their second choice, that would have been a huge boost for Smitherman. Not only that, but Pantalone would have gotten many more votes in the first place; people would have felt much more comfortable voting for him, knowing that if he finished third, their second-choice vote for Smitherman would be counted.

Under our current system, when they counted up the votes and discovered that Ford was leading with less than fifty percent, they declared him Toronto’s next mayor. Then they packed up and went home.

Again, there were a lot more than three candidates in the running, and the example above hardly proves that Smitherman would have won if we’d voted with an instant runoff ballot. For one thing – and this would have been another major impact of the IRV system – Rossi and Thomson may very well have stayed in the race.

Thomson in particular dropped out to throw her support behind Smitherman, feeling that this was the best way to beat Ford. She did so after the official deadline to withdraw, so her name remained on the ballot, as did Rossi’s. But anyone who voted for either of them would have been throwing their vote away.

Indeed, there are likely people who did vote for Thomson and Rossi using advanced ballots, only to watch them drop out after the fact. Those people didn’t get to vote again, so for all intents and purposes, they had to sit on the sidelines during election day. If they had filled out an instant runoff ballot, then their second-choice votes, third-choice votes and so on would have been counted.

Now, we don’t know how that would have affected the election, mainly because we don’t know how those people would have voted. But bear in mind that the only reason we don’t know that is because nobody asked them.

And finally, what about Canada? Well, we only need to look at our recent string of minority governments to recognize the impact that instant runoff voting could have at the federal level – particularly for the Liberals, who would no doubt benefit from a wealth of second-choice votes cast by citizens backing the Greens and the NDP.

Since our own 2004 election, which marked the end of our most recent majority government, the Liberals and the Conservatives have battled for power through a series of relatively frequent elections. Nobody’s managed to gain a majority yet – but with an instant runoff ballot, one moderate party potentially could.

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