WASHINGTON – In a move advocates hope will jump-start statewide debate, the Takoma Park City Council will ask voters in November if they want to rank candidates for citywide office by preference, rather than voting for only one.
If voters approve the measure, Takoma Park would become the first Maryland city to join a handful of others, including San Francisco and Burlington, Vt., in using instant runoff voting methods. The technique is designed to avoid concerns about ‘spoiler’ candidates diverting votes from front-runners.
“We don’t have a voting system that can accommodate more than two choices,” said Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, a nonprofit headquartered in Takoma Park.
Under an instant runoff voting system, as in a runoff election, candidates with the lowest rankings are eliminated during the tallies and those with the highest advance until there’s a clear winner.
Unlike in a runoff election, however, the system does not require the inconvenience and expense of bringing voters back for several rounds at the polls, said Ryan O’Donnell, a FairVote spokesman.
The current state system puts pressure on some candidates to withdraw from races and undermines voter choice in an election, advocates said.
Similarly, candidates who now garner the largest share of the vote win the election even if they fail to gain a clear majority, advocates said.
Richie and other advocates like Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, hope the City Council’s move will lay the groundwork for a statewide voting system that establishes election winners with a clear majority of votes.
“I think the opposition has more to do with a new or foreign idea that people are not familiar with,” said Pinsky, who unsuccessfully introduced a bill, SB 233, in 2001 to require instant runoff voting for statewide offices. “I’ve just found there’s a reticence to do something new.”
If Takoma Park voters approve the measure Nov. 8 and the City Council amends the charter, instant runoff voting would start with mayoral and council races in 2007, Richie said. The reforms mandated by the federal Help America Vote Act do not apply to local elections, he said.
Takoma Park could become a model for the rest of the state, Pinsky said.
“If it works there and it’s not so scary, you see other jurisdictions picking it up,” Pinsky said. He plans to introduce another statewide bill in the Senate session starting in January, Pinsky said.
“People will sort of see this is not as a foreign idea and something that can work here in Maryland,” he said.
Next year’s U.S. Senate race — with most of the six Democratic candidates and an Independent candidate already labeled as spoilers — could provide the impetus for the new state voting system, Richie said.
“We’ve seen statewide interest develop really quickly when you’ve had these spoiler train wrecks,” Richie said.
Ranked voter choices have the added advantage of creating more positive campaigns, O’Donnell said.
“No one wants to engage in negative attacks if you might alienate someone who might rank you second,” he said.
The system does have critics.
The Utah Republican Party suspended its use of an instant runoff voting system at its party conventions last January because the method is inherently flawed, said Spencer Jenkins, executive director of the Utah Republican Party.
“The trouble with instant runoff voting is that there is an education component,” Jenkins said. “After three years of doing it with delegates, there was still a lot of confusion.”
Other drawbacks included the lack of reliable technology to count voter-ranked ballots — his party counted them by hand, taking hours longer than usual — and the compulsion for voters to express preferences they may not feel, Jenkins said.
Richie said the Diebold electronic voting machines used by Maryland can be adapted to use ranked-choice ballots, although at extra cost. He said voters can choose not to rank candidates they don’t wish to support.
Maryland political parties aren’t exactly jumping on the advocacy bandwagon, either.
Audra Miller, Maryland Republican Party spokeswoman, said the primary election “may not always be a neat process,” but the winner had the majority of the party’s support.
Josh White, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, said he had never been approached by any instant runoff voting advocates and “was not that familiar” with the system.
Even if approached, White said, the first question he would ask is “Why is it necessary?”
“If you’re looking for a perfect system, you’re going to be looking for a very long time,” White said.
Although instant runoff voting makes sense “in theory,” he said, it would support “just as much wheeling and dealing, just as much Machiavellian strategy, the other way as well.”