In March, San Francisco will decide whether to use instant runoff voting to elect city officers in the upcoming November 2002 elections. This is the first major test of the instant runoff voting system in the country. Faced with costs of up to $2 million per election cycle for traditional runoff voting, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 10 to 1 to put the issue of instant runoff voting to a referendum. Instant runoff voting would replace traditional runoff elections that are costly, for both candidates and taxpayers, and that require voters to head to the polls twice, causing a massive decline in voter turnout. For example, in the December 2000 runoff election in San Francisco, only 15 percent of voters exercised their right.
In instant runoff voting, voters rank candidates in order of preference, thereby selecting a first choice, second choice, and third choice candidate, or more. The candidate garnering the least amount of votes is discarded. If your first choice were the discarded candidate, then your vote would be attributed to your second choice candidate and all of the votes would be recounted. This process would continue until one clear winner could be identified, ensuring majority rule. According to Rob Richie, Executive Director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, instant runoff voting not only save money but would also help open up the political system to third parties. Under this system, says Richie, one would never feel as though s/he were “wasting one’s vote” as in plurality voting, where winner takes all even if a majority of the people voted against the winning candidate. “Plurality voting not only jeopardizes majority rule, but it typically suppresses non-major party candidacies, who enrich democracy by bolstering voter participation, and invigorating the campaign dialogue,” said Richie.
Across the nation, citizens are just beginning to take notice of instant runoff voting, a system created by an American in 1870 and used in national elections in Australia and Ireland. The League of Women Voters in Vermont is leading a push for all Vermont towns to include a non-binding referendum on instant runoff voting on their March 2002 ballots, and Alaskans will vote on the issue in November 2002.