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The best candidate for some elections is IRV


If ever there was an election that cried out for Instant Runoff Voting, the Democratic primary for N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction is it. Without it, we, the taxpayers, are forced to spend $3 million next Tuesday to conduct a single statewide runoff--$3 million to nominate one party's candidate for the one, minor office not settled by the voting on July 20. This will be the only statewide runoff, to repeat, in any party. (Gotta say "any" party, not "either" party, or we'll hear from the Libertarians again.) All the other runoffs--and there aren't very many--are in local races, most notably two of our 13 congressional districts.

I won't even get into the argument about whether we should be electing a state schools superintendent in the first place, given that school policy is set by the governor, the legislature and an appointed State Board of Education, and the superintendent is only a functionary. Not gonna go there.

Nor will I say that, when June Atkinson realized that she'd finished a close second to Marshall Stewart in the primary, and just ahead of third-place finisher J.B. Buxton, and that as a consequence of this close three-way race no candidate had gotten the requisite 40 percent to win outright, she should have said to herself: 'Well, June, you could call for a runoff, but since it would be the only runoff, for any office, in most of the 100 counties, and it would cost the taxpayers $3 million, according to the State Board of Elections, maybe it would be the better part of valor to forebear."

Sure, Atkinson could have conceded to Stewart right then and there, especially when she heard that Republican gubernatorial runner-up Richard Vinroot was conceding to first-place finisher Patrick Ballantine without a runoff, thus assuring that hers--if she insisted on one--would be the only one.

But, she didn't, and who can blame her? Would Stewart have stepped aside if he'd finished second? Or Buxton? Did any of them think of this problem ahead of time?

Maybe not, but the advocates of IRV did: If we had it in our election laws, we wouldn't need a runoff, because we'd have had one already. Here's how. On July 20, in the first primary, we'd have voted for Atkinson, or Stewart, or Buxton, as usual. But we'd also have voted for our second choice, just in case no candidate hit the 40 percent threshold. Here, with Stewart ahead but well short of 40 percent, we eliminate the last-place finisher, Buxton, and count his voters' second choices, which would yield a clear winner.

With six candidates, as in the GOP gubernatorial, the bottom finishers would be eliminated serially--sixth-place out, then fifth-place, and so on--with their voters' second choices counted until one of the remaining candidates hit 40 percent.

Now, I know this sounds so very, very esoteric--like something some lib'rul would think up over his herbal tea--but it's actually quite practical, which is why the Utah Republicans are using it, as well as the left-coasters in Berkeley and San Francisco, Calif., who use it in local elections.

For one thing, it saves money. But it also increases voter turnout--in two ways.

The first and obvious one is that since more people vote in the first primary than in virtually any runoff, an "instant runoff" gives more folks that second shot. (Just wait and see how pathetic the turnout is for a statewide "race" between Atkinson and Stewart.)

The second, and less obvious reason: It encourages more candidates to run, because with IRV, folks can compete and raise issues without being labeled a "spoiler" who's just taking votes away from other candidates with similar views.

More candidates, raising more issues, equals more voter interest--hence, greater turnout.

That's why IRV is catching on in Australia, Ireland and London, England--other places that, like the United States and unlike most democracies in the world-- do not use parliamentary systems and proportional representation to elect their governments.

In a proportional rep system, parties win seats in the legislature/parliament based on the number of votes they get (20 percent of the votes, 20 percent of the seats), and if no party wins an outright majority, a governing coalition forms--and the prime minister chooses the schools superintendent and other executive officers.

But in the U.S.A., we have a winner-take-all system, and in most cases it gives the prize to whichever candidate (not party) that gets the most votes, even if well short of a majority. If every Democratic candidate in this state gets 49 percent of the vote, for example, and every Republican gets 48 (and the Libertarians 3), then the Democrats will hold 100 percent of the offices, and the Republicans none. And the Libertarians, whose votes are considered to come out of the GOP's hides, will be considered "spoilers."

Read on, Naderites: This is, of course, Ralph Nader's problem. He thinks he has a right to run for president, it being a free country and all. And people opposed to the invasion of Iraq might want to vote for him (or for the Libertarian candidate, Michael Badnarik, who's also antiwar), since John Kerry's position is far from clear.

But without IRV, Nader's candidacy has the perverse effect of helping the guy most of Nader's supporters like least--George W. Bush. With IRV (and a 50 percent threshold, presumably), Nader draws a lot of disenchanted voters to the polls, they cast an antiwar vote for him, and then--when he finishes third--their second-choice pick helps Kerry beat Bush.

Or maybe Nader doesn't finish third, and Kerry's second-place votes make Nader the president. Or Kerry-Nader are one-two, and Bush's third-place votes ... Anyway, you get more voters.

For chapter and verse, check out www.fairvote,org, the website of the Center for Voting and Democracy.

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