Democrats swallowing glasses of Guinness and red wine at 45-year-old King County Council member Dow Constantine's "Seventh Annual 39th Birthday Party" at Kells Irish Pub last Wednesday were in denial about a serious issue. Some of them knew they had a problem, but didn't want to admit it. Others didn't even understand the problem. But if elected officials in both major parties don't deal with IRV before their constituents become aware of it, it could be too late.
On Nov. 7, Pierce County voters approved Charter Amendment 3, requiring IRV— instant runoff voting—for almost all elected county seats by 2008. In so doing, Pierce County became the first major jurisdiction in Washington state to approve the newfangled concept of IRV, which gives voters the option of choosing candidates in order of preference rather than voting for just one or being restricted to a single party's primary ballot.
In an IRV contest, a candidate must win a majority for the election to be declared over. If that doesn't happen in round one, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated, with his or her votes redistributed to that candidate's voters' second choice. If this second tally gives one of the remaining candidates a majority, a winner is declared. If not, candidates are eliminated from the bottom, one by one, until someone gets a majority (a plurality will never do). The "instant runoff" is the redistribution of votes from round to round, altogether eliminating the need for primary elections in races that utilize the IRV system.
The IRV movement is picking up momentum across the nation. Citizens in Minneapolis and two California cities, Oakland and Davis, also passed IRV initiatives this past Election Day. According to FairVote, a national organization that
helped organize the Pierce County campaign, IRV—also known as preferential voting—has won eight consecutive ballot measures and has already been implemented in San Francisco and Burlington, Vt., where former governor and Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean submitted his ballot for the municipal election.
Proponents are quick to claim that IRV eliminates the "spoiler effect" attributed to third parties. If IRV had been used in the 2000 presidential election, for instance, all of Ralph Nader's votes would have gone to his supporters' second choices once Nader was eliminated—which presumably would have tilted that historically close election to Al Gore. Hence, under IRV, people can vote their conscience without worrying about their votes being thrown away.
But IRV supporters aren't expecting to see third-party candidates sweep into office under their favored system. Former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, who participated in the Pierce County campaign and has been pushing for voter reform in the state for the past few years, says it just levels the playing field.
"We're not going to have a Green Party government all of a sudden," he says. "The mainstream establishment is going to adapt to it."
Seattle Green Party activist Joe Szwaja, who helped raise money for Amendment 3 through the organization Instant Runoff Voting WA, says that other reforms involving issues like campaign finance need to accompany IRV for it to have a measurable impact.
At Constantine's bash, King County Council member Larry Phillips said he had no position on IRV. Council colleague Larry Gossett hadn't even heard of IRV, although he seemed intrigued once it was explained. State Democratic Party Chair Dwight Pelz said he had no personal opinion but that the issue could be divisive within the party.
"There're people that feel it weakens the party," he said. "It's clearly something we have to address."
Pelz, dressed in jeans and a casual dark top, wasn't in the mood to discuss IRV any further at Kells. Meanwhile, Constantine, busy catching up with his guests, was willing to chat a bit longer.
"IRV has the potential to answer a lot of questions posed by our nation's current voting system," he said, carefully choosing his words. "Whether we could apply the system successfully is the question we'll have to answer."
But Constantine's measured response could be lost in the roar of an IRV campaign next year in King County, where a commission will soon be appointed to scrutinize and tweak the county charter. That's how IRV got started in Pierce County, where last fall a 21-member commission was elected to review the county charter. Libertarian commissioner Kelly Haughton convinced his colleagues to put IRV on the ballot.
So does Constantine think something similar could happen during King County's review process?
"That's a long, long set of conversations," he replies.
This isn't the first time instant runoff voting has come up in Washington. In 1999, Vancouver residents passed a measure to use IRV in City Council elections, but the city never implemented it. In 2004, an attempt to establish IRV statewide by voters' initiative (I-318) failed to get enough signatures to make it onto the ballot. In 2005, Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, introduced legislation to allow some Washington cities to implement IRV for nonpartisan elections. Her bill passed in the Senate but never made it out of the House.
"I think for local jurisdictions it would work," says Kohl-Welles. Yet she doesn't support implementing IRV on the state level, believing third-party officials would find it difficult to function within the current two-party system. "It's hard for that person to be effective," she explains.
Hence, Kohl-Welles says she doesn't anticipate IRV being a priority on the Democrats' legislative agenda next year. And the state Republican Party referred calls on IRV to Pierce County Republican Party Chair Deryl McCarty, who opposed Amendment 3. McCarty says it will be expensive to implement (up to $3 million for voter education and tabulating equipment, although Haughton cites lower estimates) and could confuse voters, at least initially, because they will have IRV ballots for Pierce County offices and traditional ballots for all other offices.
Even still, McCarty said there's no reason to fear a lawsuit from his party. "Why poke your finger in the voter's eye?" he says.
But IRV could have undesired results for voters and candidates, says Matt Barreto, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington. He points out that in IRV elections with a high number of candidates, a spoiler effect could still prevail.
Imagine a mayoral race with eight candidates where the bottom four candidates' votes have to be harvested to create a majority. What if the candidate in third tends to be the second choice of those who voted for the bottom four? He gets all those votes. That would mean the person who got the highest number of first-choice rankings could lose, while the guy who initially came in third takes the election.
And Washington's electorate may be feeling fatigued from a recent wave of ballot box tomfoolery: The 2004 gubernatorial recount and the unpopular pick-a-party primary ballot have left IRV activists with an uphill battle to convince the voting public that they aren't selling snake oil. Just describing how votes are tabulated under IRV can often lead to blank stares.
But FairVote Executive Director Rob Richie says that if any jurisdiction in the state would be amenable to IRV, it's King County.
"It's got a younger, more mobile population," he says. "It's more like the places that pass it with over 60 percent."
This characterization pushes Constantine toward a moment of clarity.
"Our nation has always struggled to find ways for people to more precisely express their views," he says. "IRV is one potential answer to that problem. Having a winner-take-all system is a farce."