ANNAPOLIS – Imagine yourself sequestered in a voting booth, marking a vote for your favorite candidate. Then imagine picking a second choice for the same office – just in case your first choice is eliminated from a runoff race.
Some voting activists are promoting this “instant runoff” method of voting for Maryland and have enlisted the support of Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s.
Pinsky testified before the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee this week that Maryland, like many other states, needs voting reform.
The issue resonates strongly after the 2000 presidential election’s controversial outcome, in which Green Party candidate Ralph Nader played a “spoiler” role, he said.
Instant runoff voting is one way to insure a majority of votes for election winners, Pinsky said.
The proposed reform would allow voters to rank their candidate choices. If a voter’s first choice is eliminated, the second choice is counted until there is a majority vote for the eventual winner.
The current system is problematic because it can result in a winner receiving only a plurality of votes, Pinsky said.
“It will put someone else in office who doesn’t have a majority of votes,” he said. “How can (the public) have confidence in the voting?”
Thomas Bryer, executive director of Reform America, said the reform would empower voters and increase the legitimacy of the elected leadership in the voters’ eyes.
“Instant runoff voting insures that every vote will not only be counted but will count for something,” he said.
However, Sen. Andrew Harris, R-Baltimore County, said questioning the legitimacy of elections or elected officials “opens a can of worms we don’t want to get into,” he said.
The bill also faces a steep financial obstacle.
A ranked voting system usually requires equipment such as touch-screen or optical scanning machines, and not all jurisdictions have them. A Department of Legislative Services analysis found the bill to have a potential significant impact on local governments by requiring them to replace or revise their current voting systems.
The bill would cost at least $600,000 per election in Montgomery County. A new voting system in Prince George’s County could cost as much as $7 million.
Baltimore wouldn’t have to spend much money because it just installed an electronic voting system, said analyst John Pixey. But the new system already cost $6.5 million.
Supporters still believe reform is necessary. A majority of votes makes for a clearer mandate for the winner, said Eric Olson, deputy director for the Center for Voting and Democracy, a national organization that studies elections.
The rise of strong third and fourth parties in Maryland increases the likelihood of a plurality vote, said Olson, adding that some voters worry their votes for third party candidates might be “wasted.”
An instant runoff system might encourage younger voters, who often register as independents, to vote, he said.
Alison Gibbons, co-chairwoman of the Maryland Green Party, said her party supports voting reform, including the instant runoff method.
“We’re not interested in spoiling elections,” she said.
Cambridge, Mass., uses an instant runoff system, and other jurisdictions, including New Mexico, Alaska, and Vermont, are considering implementing an instant runoff system, said Olson.
The rise of minor parties in Maryland is a good incentive to consider the reform now, he said. “If it doesn’t pass this year, I think it will keep coming back in future years,” said Olson. “Clearly many states are looking at this, and it is gaining attention.”
“I’m always hopeful.”