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Runoff Voting

12/13/04 12:00AM By Bill McKibben
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(HOST) Commentator Bill McKibben is hopeful that the new Vermont legislature will be willing to take another look at election reform - and at one change in particular.


(MCKIBBEN) After an election is over - especially a traumatic election like the one we just went through - the last thing that most of us want to think about is voting and ballots and the like. In fact, however, the new alignment in the state legislature offers a real possibility for fundamental change: if they wanted to, the Democrats in the Vermont House and Senate might be able to start us down the road toward Instant Runoff Voting.

Instant Runoff Voting is the system used in countries like Australia, and cities like San Francisco and Cambridge. Instead of simply choosing the candidate for, say, governor, you get to rank the contenders. Imagine a three-way governor's race that featured, say, Tom, Dick and Harriet. You would list them in your order of preference, and all the #1 votes would be tallied. But if no one had a clear majority, then you'd eliminate the lowest vote-getter: Dick, say. And then you'd go through his ballots to see who his supporters had ranked second and add them to the appropriate piles. When you were finished, someone would have the biggest stack, and they'd be the new governor.

The system's attributes are obvious. You can vote for a third party candidate without worrying that you're acting as a spoiler, since your vote would eventually be counted for your second choice candidate; that is, everyone can vote their conscience, and no one is simply voting their conscience. And whoever eventually wins will be the choice of a majority of the electorate: the specter of the legislature picking a winner from among three minority candidates will disappear.

But there's another, subtler benefit as well: there's suddenly a strong incentive for candidates to avoid really nasty negative campaigning. You don't want to completely alienate the supporters of your opponent, because you hope that some of them will list you second on their ballots. The kind of nasty radio ads that suddenly started appearing at the end of the last campaign might well backfire on their sponsors; instead of building divisions, you'd want to build coalitions. As a young newspaper reporter, I covered several Instant Runoff Voter elections in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and they were spirited and hard-fought without a trace of pettiness.

Politicians are reluctant to change the system that got them elected. But Vermont's leaders have a well-deserved reputation for statesmanship, and now is the time to exercise it.

I'm Bill McKibben from Ripton.

Environmentalist Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College. His most recent book is "Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age."
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