While some voters may have stayed home from the polls earlier this month due to the blustery weather, lackluster candidates stopped a lot more citizens from voting. In the 2004 presidential elections and this year’s gubernatorial elections, many felt indifferent toward or even disgusted by both major party candidates.
Reforming the electoral process on a national and state level may be a long process – but on a local level, Ann Arbor residents can take action now to fix their voting system. Instant runoff voting can provide residents with the chance to vote for third party candidates without fear of throwing away their vote, making local elections more competitive and the outcome more democratic.
IRV allows voters to rank their preferred candidates in single-winner races. Voters’ first-choice candidates are tallied first. In the event no candidate has a majority, the last-place candidate is dropped, and his votes are redistributed to his voters’ second choice. The process is repeated until one candidate holds the majority. This method is currently used in Australia and Fiji, as well as in San Francisco’s local races.
Here in Ann Arbor, voters approved IRV for local races in 1974. Then, IRV was a solution to problems caused by a growing third party, the Human Rights Party, whose success took away Democratic votes and led to the election of Republican Mayor James Stephenson in 1971 with 47 percent of the vote. With IRV in place, Stephenson lost his 1975 re-election campaign to his Democratic challenger. IRV did cause some problems in its inaugural run, namely delays in tallying votes due to paper ballots and confusion among poll workers – hardly insurmountable difficulties. But a Republican-led petition drive and unusually high Republican turnout in the 1976 election led to the repeal of IRV.
Today it is not the strength of a third party, but the lack of even a second party that makes IRV’s return necessary. All ten of Ann Arbor’s City Council members are Democrats, though two originally ran as Republicans before realizing that electoral success here is much easier with a “D” next to your name on the ballot. Single-party dominance has meant that Council members are selected in August primaries. In this month’s general election, only one of the five ward races was contested at all, by a Green Party candidate who earned 16 percent of the vote in Ward 3. IRV would make races more competitive by allowing voters to choose third-party candidates without fear of throwing away their votes.
The Green Party could be strong in Ann Arbor, but without experienced candidates, it will remain on the outskirts of mainstream local politics. Greens and members of other alternative parties could gain experience and legitimacy if the voting system allowed citizens to support them without worrying their vote wouldn’t count.
Support for IRV is growing, with a local group, the Ann Arbor Fair Vote Coalition, advancing the issue. Washtenaw County Clerk Larry Kestenbaum supports IRV, and Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje said he would back IRV if he was convinced residents understood it and wanted it.
The voting system certainly isn’t the only problem plaguing our democracy – but it is one thing that can be easily addressed at the local level. IRV can mean more competitive elections and increased civic participation in Ann Arbor. Local groups must continue their efforts to spark interest among residents and to educate them in order to avoid the confusion that marred IRV’s 1975 run. Student groups, too, have the opportunity to mobilize campus behind. By joining up with other IRV supporters, students can contribute to a larger movement to make our local elections more democratic.