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Originally published Monday, January 10, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Avoid messy deadlocks with instant runoff voting

Our broken election system brought bad news in the recent governor's race — lawsuits, multiple recounts, and "spoiler" accusations against smaller parties. Worst of all, we'll...

Special to The Times

Our broken election system brought bad news in the recent governor's race — lawsuits, multiple recounts, and "spoiler" accusations against smaller parties. Worst of all, we'll have a winner who — regardless of the result — will have the support of only a minority of Washington's voters.

This is not to disparage Chris Gregoire or her supporters. We'd have all of the same problems if Dino Rossi were the narrow winner because of the way in which we do elections — a plurality system which is outmoded and unfair.

The good news is there's a clear and simple solution which ensures that winners have majority support, reduces negative campaigning and gives all voters greater voice and broader choice. It's IRV (instant runoff voting) — a democratic system being used internationally and increasingly in this country as well.

IRV is based upon the simple democratic premise that people should be able to vote their hopes, not their fears, without helping elect someone they don't like. Under IRV, voters rank their preferred candidates in order of preference — 1, 2, 3, etc.

If someone wins more than half of the No. 1 votes, they are elected. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their votes are automatically transferred to their supporters' second choice. If necessary, this process continues up the line until someone earns a majority.

If we had used IRV in the recent governor's election, we would have avoided our current mess. Ruth Bennett, the Libertarian candidate for governor, received 63,000 votes. Under IRV, we would have known whom these voters preferred as their second choice. Their votes would have been automatically transferred to their next preference. We would have had a clear winner and would have elected a governor who clearly was the first or second choice of the majority of our state's voters, most likely without all of the costly and confusing recounts.

IRV has a proven track record in a number of settings in the U.S. and around the world. Ireland and Australia use IRV in their democratic elections. It was widely used in city elections in the Eastern United States in the first decades of the 20th century before being squelched by big-money powerbrokers in the dominant parties. It is used in city elections in Cambridge, Mass., the city of London and, beginning last year, in San Francisco, where it earned solid voter reviews.

The Utah Republican Party utilizes IRV in its internal elections; it's also used in the MVP balloting in baseball, and the Academy Award nominations. Citizens in Vancouver, Clark County, voted in favor of using IRV in their city elections, though they are not currently permitted to do so by our Legislature. IRV is also gaining support across the political spectrum from people such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean.

Folks who study elections for a living — the members of the American Political Science Association — even use IRV to elect their own officers, as they know it's a far more precise and democratic measure of voter preferences than our plurality system.

Another advantage is that IRV allows people to vote for candidates from different parties in different races and would thus restore the choice taken away when the dominant parties eliminated our blanket primary. And by combining the primary and general election into one (it accomplishes the narrowing-down function of primaries by allowing voters to rank their choices), IRV would save millions of tax dollars every year by requiring only one election. IRV is also strongly linked with higher voter turnout in the places it has been used, since more voters feel that their preferences are considered.

Moreover, IRV reduces negative campaigning since candidates hope voters will vote for them No. 2 or No. 3, if not No. 1; that also will lessen attacks on other parties.

New ideas offered by parties and candidates outside of the mainstream have done much to deepen and expand our democratic horizons throughout U.S. history — even when the candidates themselves are not elected. The end of slavery, women's suffrage, popular election of senators, unemployment insurance, Social Security and the eight-hour day are just a few of our major democratic advances first championed by third parties.

IRV could open up the way for new alliances and the cross-pollination of ideas that would make similar advances take place once again, if we allow people to vote their true preferences by instituting IRV here in Washington.

So let's avoid costly and confusing election deadlocks. Instead, let's renew our democracy by offering Washington more voices and choices, while ensuring true majority elections.

Joe Szwaja is a board member of IRVWA (Instant Runoff Voting in Washington), which is promoting IRV in the state. IRVWA is made up of members of the Green, Libertarian, American Heritage, Democratic and Republican parties, as well as independents. For more information, www.irvwa.org, or 1-866-IRVWAORG.

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