Straight Talk On So-Called “Instant Runoff Voting” or Why the “Cure” Is as Deadly as the “Disease”

Apparently someone at the LA Times Blog linked to this 3-year old article. You can see my response to the shenanigans here. For the record, in 2005 people were often using the terms “IRV” and “RCV” interchangeably, I guess since then people have settled on RCV. Whatever.
If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium, and if it’s runoff season, then it must be  time for Self Appointed Prophet Steven Hill of the “Center for Voting and Democracy” to be pimping the reform du jour of so-called “progressives” to “fix” our “elections” – the so-called “reform” of Instant Runoff Voting.
You can read his latest sales pitch in the Los Angeles Times for the most recent iteration of the ongoing drive to push “IRV.” (or whatever it is they want to call it these days).
Just don’t expect much debate – most people aren’t interested in a real discussion of the issue. Proponents have a Stalin-like objection to any discussion that does not sing the system’s hosannas in high tones, whereas opponents frankly don’t care, since they consider it something that belongs in the “tin hat crowd” file at the newspaper.
Having actually worked on a campaign in 2004 in San Francisco under said voting system, I’m taking a moment to write a column that I should have written in 2004, that gives you, the citizen, some straight talk on this issue.
I’m not ideologically invested in IRV one way or the other – instead I’m just someone who saw the real-world effects of a change to the election process. So, let’s take some of the basic assumptions of Prophet of Truth Hill’s piece and put them to the test.
We start with an oh-so-typical whining about the State of Affairs Our Election is In, the kind I took to task last week. It’s a great segue into the sales pitch. But it also misses a lot about the specific political history of Los Angeles as well. Perhaps such subtleties are worth papering over in pursuit of The One True Way.
Now, let’s pick apart the arguments and find a little truth, shall we?
Myth: San Francisco has an Instant Runoff System in Place
Put away that pillow, this isn’t devolving into BuzzwordSpeak just yet. Really.
Mr. Hill makes the argument that San Francisco has an Instant Runoff System. In fact it does not. They had to change the name to “Ranked Choice Voting” because, in the rush to implement the law, regardless of things like, oh I don’t know, the Constitution, they couldn’t implement a true IRV system. What’s the difference?
Well it’s simple. In a true “Instant Runoff Voting” system, you’d have a list of all the candidates for a particular office, and you’d rank each one according to preference. If there were, say, 15 candidates, you’d rank each candidate from 1 (the one you like, and want to win) to 15 (the one you like the least). Kind of like rating a song or something on the radio.
They count all the ballots, and if no one gets 50% +1, they cull out the lowest vote getter, look at the 2nd place votes those voters placed ,and keep counting until they get a winner.
The Big Idea is that if you voted for a dud, you still can have a voice in the outcome, since your 2nd, 3rd, or 11th choice could get counted. Blah blah blah. (For more detailed discussion of the system, read some of the articles I wrote last year during the election).
San Francisco does not do this. Instead, you only get to pick a “top three” – you pick the one you like best, your “2nd choice” and your “3rd choice.” If there’s 3 candidates , you rank all three (if you want). If there’s 20 (like there were in the race I worked on) you rank….3.
This is a critical difference, one that bears some examination. The article in the L.A. Times states that San Francisco has an IRV system, when it doesn’t. There’s a big difference in the effect it has on how people vote, and on the results therein. So when we read a piece in the L.A. Times  that asserts something that simply isn’t the case, it’s time to turn on our BS Microscope on said editorial.
Myth: Elections are too expensive. We need IRV to “save money” and avoid these runoff elections
This is possibly the most cynical, and the most dangerous argument I have heard for any election system, IRV or not. To me, a sound, safe, fair, and honest election system is the bedrock of any democracy. To try and do it “on the cheap” just because some limousine liberals (or whoever) have somehow deemed elections are “expensive” is bogus.
I don’t care if it costs the US Government a bazillion dollars to ensure our votes are fairly counted and administered. We spent a ton of money to ensure Iraqis have democracy – why the hell should we be pinching pennies here at home? People fought and died for our freedom in wars – why would we dishonor them by saying that we need to cut a few pennies off the voting process so we can fund more tax breaks for corporations, or other special interest groups?
I don’t think that the Republic is doomed, financially by having runoff elections. And let’s face facts – when have you ever heard a liberal make an argument about saving money? Rarely. So this is a red herring that I discard almost immediately. People paid for democracy for their lives – it’s priceless, and to try and play penny-pinching with our voting is just plain wrong.
Myth: People will run positive campaigns, because if they run campaigns that say bad things about their opponents, the supporters of Said Opponents will retaliate by not voting for them
The biggest lie in the IRV sales pitch. While it is true that this was an assumption many people chose to live by during the 2004 elections, it was based entirely on supposition and belief, not on the political culture and tradition most people make their decisions on.
In fact, all the candidates who engaged in all sorts of cutsey “buddy buddy” election gimmicks, such as holding joint fundraisers for the same office, or putting out mail pieces jointly paid for by more than one candidate, all got their asses kicked (my client included).
There is absolutely no empirical evidence at all that voters who support one particular fringe candidate, upon seeing a negative attack on said candidate by another, all as a block say “Oh, goodness I shan’t vote for that candidate who made such a naughty attack mailer!”.
In fact, most people don’t think or vote that way at all. More importantly, unless candidates specifically tell in their literature who they believe should be people’s 2nd and 3rd (or however many) choices on the ballot, most people fill the ballot out at random, or base it on criterion that have nothing to do with how the election was conducted.
More to the point, it’s wishful thinking on the part of lesser candidates to think they’ll have any real impact on the election if they don’t somehow quantify how they are “helping” front runners.
During the 2004 election, I discovered that San Francisco election law had a peculiarly foolish hole that forbade candidates from saying whom they supported for those 2nd and 3rd choice spots in paid media, yet did not do so when they spoke in person. I fought the Ethics Commission to develop new rules that would allow for us to do so on the campaign I worked on.
Now, you’d think that for doing so I’d get a big “thank you” from the Prophet of Truth who came up with this great idea. Instead, I was subjected to a screaming attack over the phone from Steven Hill for my efforts, followed by slanderous comments from him to my client. Class act, these ideologues. Watch how fast I rush to defend this system in the future.
More to the point, the eventual winner in all the races was the person who got the most votes on Election Day and all the bullshit scenarios whittled by consultants and others who somehow thought they could run a half-assed campaign and still win were out the door.
We all learned that night that if you want to win under IRV you need to kick ass and take names early and often – and endorsing groups figured that out too.
They didn’t bother with 2nd or 3rd place endorsements – they pushed aside such thoughts and went for the people with…the most money, the most endorsements, and the most volunteers earlier than usual, and stuck with them.
In our race, now-Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi was so far ahead of 2nd place finisher Robert Haaland, there was no way in Hell Robert was going to catch up to Ross, even if by some act of (God, Buddha, SpongeBob, whatever) every single 2nd and 3rd place pick of folks went to him (which it did not).
So after all the hassle, the talk, and the screaming matches on the phone, San Francisco saw results no different than if they’d’ just done things the Same Old Way.
Wait. That’s not true. In San Francisco’s 7th District, a weak appointed incumbent saw a better than expected challenger in candidate Christine Linnenbach.
Had they both gone to a one-on-one runoff, it is likely Linnenbach might have won. But under IRV, we never got the chance for a face-off that would have offered voters a clear choice, instead of one muddled by fringe candidates.
Other than that election, nothing changed. The one race where IRV “helped” end an “expensive” runoff and we ended up with a status quo appointed incumbent who outspent his rival 7-1. Whee! Can I sign up for this in my neighborhood?
Not a great endorsement of the system, which is always pitched to people who ca’nt win under our current system (usually “progressives”) as a cure, even though there’s no evidence it would do anything but strengthen the hand of strong candidates.
There is a legitimate discussion that should be held to figure out ways to ensure that all voices are accounted for and that our nation leads the way in providing citizens ways to express themselves in the electoral process. If we are to truly be in the vanguard of freedom, stifiling such a discussion at home when we amplifiy it abroad is hypocritical.
That said, we should also be wary of “solutions” that are packaged as the One True Answer to our problems, without putting said “solutions” through the intellectual wringer.
That may not fit the grand designes of Self Appointed Prophets. But we as citizens have not lost our right to speak out just yet, and should do so to ensure an honest discussion of many ways of voting, not just the ones that are designed to help one  side vs. another.
In the meantime, spare me the “IRV me ASAP” rhetoric. And pass me a Schlitz.
© 2003-2006 Greg Dewar | All Rights Reserved | Originally Published at

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