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Instant Runoffs? Go Slow

Speed and democracy don't usually go hand in hand. But when it comes to instant runoff voting (IRV), San Franciscans, for one, have been quick to adopt the idea, and Vermonters have roundly endorsed it.

Generally, IRV works like this: Voters make their first choice for an elected official, and at the same time make a series of runoff choices – all in one trip to the polls. If a clear winner isn't produced in the first round, votes cast for a losing candidate are transferred by computer to a voter's second choice. Individuals getting the least number of votes drop off, and a winner is eventually declared.

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Vermonters, in 52 out of 55 town meetings, endorsed the idea for statewide elections. Last month, San Franciscans voted (56 percent to 44 percent) to adopt IRV for city elections.

The idea of instant runoff voting has immediate appeal. Runoffs are costly, and cumbersome for voters. With IRV, that cost is eliminated for both candidates and government. The system can also help citizens who favor third-party candidates, but who don't want to be seen as election spoilers. It may also encourage those with less money and less name recognition to run, since they could end up as a second choice and thus have a shot.

IRV could even work to reduce negative campaigning. Candidates might be more leery of attacking one another knowing that while they may not be a voter's first choice, they may be his or her second choice.

But other states and localities considering the concept should pay attention to some negatives as well. The right to vote may be better protected when citizens can take the time to thoughtfully weigh choices and trade-offs within the new dynamics naturally created between a pair of runoff candidates. And in this post-butterfly ballot world, voters may well find IRV confusing.

The period between a general election and a runoff can be an opportunity for party regulars to work to increase turnout, for candidates to clarify issues, and for voters to gain greater perspective.