I submitted the following letter on behalf of several individuals to the initial public comment period of the Somerville Charter Advisory Committee advocating the use of Instant Runoff Voting for municipal elections in Somerville. Please note that the “Choice Voting” system discussed in the letter is the same as the “Single Transferable Vote” system discussed in this document available on the committee’s webpage. More information on the idea is available online at SomervilleIRV.org.
Dear Charter Advisory Committee,
Thank you for volunteering your time and effort for the Charter Advisory Committee. The stated aim of the committee is to "modernize the city’s structure and government." As such, we as registered voters in Somerville, believe the Committee to be an excellent opportunity to bring our electoral system into the 21st century. Specifically, we recommend making our elections easier, cheaper, and fairer by eliminating the preliminary municipal elections and instead using Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) in the general election. This simple change would bring enormous benefits. It would . . .
- Save us time and money by eliminating the preliminary election;
- Discourage strategic voting by allowing voters to honestly rank candidates instead of gambling on a bullet vote;
- Encourage positive campaigning because candidates are at a disadvantage when they turn off supporters of their opponents;
- Ease military and overseas voting by eliminating the narrow window in which the general election ballot must be returned;
- Promote the full representation of the entire Somerville community by ensuring minority representation while preserving majority rule; and
- Boost voter turnout for all the reasons listed above.
These benefits, each discussed in greater detail below, explain why IRV is quickly being adopted by an increasing number of jurisdictions across the United States. Several cities, including as San Francisco (CA), Burlington (VT), and Cary (NC), already use IRV for municipal elections; and implementations of IRV are currently pending in Minneapolis (MN), Aspen (CO), Santa Fe (NM), and elsewhere. In addition to the increasing municipal use of IRV, three states — Arkansas, Louisiana, and South Carolina — use it for their overseas and military ballots. Our neighboring city Cambridge has used a variant of IRV successfully for years. Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain have both supported IRV in the past as well. Instant Runoff is truly the future of elections in the U.S. We would be happy to give a presentation to the Charter Advisory Committee about Instant Runoff Voting and address any questions or concerns you may have about our proposal.
How does IRV work?
IRV is as easy as 1, 2, 3
This is how it works. Under IRV, voters rank their candidates on the ballot in order of preference. If Alice is your first choice, Bob your second choice, and Carol your third, you simply indicate that ranking on the ballot: (1) Alice; (2) Bob; (3) Carol. For the voter, it’s literally as easy as 1, 2, 3.
When the votes are counted, if any candidate has a majority of the first-choices, naturally, that candidate is elected. If nobody has a majority, then the candidate with the fewest first-choices is eliminated from contention, and a series of runoffs is automatically simulated between the remaining candidates. A ballot that ranked the eliminated candidate first is now counted as a vote for the second choice. If there is still no candidate with a majority of votes, the candidate with the fewest first choices is again eliminated, and this process continues until a candidate reaches the majority needed to win.
Instant Runoff Voting is a system for choosing a single winner, suitable for electing our Mayor, Ward Aldermen, and School Committee members. For the Alderman At-Large election, the appropriate voting system is a multiple-winner form of IRV, known as Choice Voting, capable of electing all four At-Large seats at once. IRV and Choice Voting are in fact the same voting system. "Instant Runoff Voting" is just the name for that system when it is used to elect one person, and "Choice Voting" is the name when electing more than one. Both IRV and Choice use the same preferential ballot on which candidates are ranked, so they’re both as easy as 1, 2, 3.
Saves Time and Money
IRV will save us time and money by eliminating the preliminary election.
According to the Somerville Elections Department, a preliminary election raises the cost of an election cycle by an additional $50,000. It also costs every voter time and energy to show up yet again to the polls. Despite the high price tag, preliminaries experience extremely low turnout, meaning a smaller number of people are making decisions that affect all of us.
Nevertheless, the preliminary election serves a very useful purpose: to eliminate potential spoiler candidates prior to the general. For example, if Gore, Bush, and Nader were all running in a general election, liberal voters might split their support between Gore and Nader, spoiling the election and causing Bush to win. However, a preliminary election would first narrow the field to two candidates, Gore and Bush. They would then face off in the general, where Gore would have a fair shot at winning.
IRV has all the benefits of holding both a preliminary and general election, but streamlines the process into a single election with one trip to the ballot box. An IRV election winnows the field of candidates automatically, rendering the preliminary unnecessary.
Returning to the race between Gore, Bush, and Nader, under IRV Nader supporters could rank Nader first and Gore second, voting their conscious while still indicating a backup in case Nader is eliminated. Had IRV been in place in the 2000 presidential election, Gore would have won Florida, because a majority of Florida voters preferred him to Bush.
Encourages Honest Voting
IRV encourages voters to honestly rank candidates on the ballot instead of gambling on strategic "bullet votes".
Upon entering the voting booth in an election for the Somerville Aldermen At-Large, every voter must unwillingly play a game. The name of the game is "How many candidates should I vote for?". The rules allow every voter to vote for up to four candidates — the same as the number to be elected — but figuring out whether to use one, two, three, or all four votes can be a complicated and error-prone task.
Consider your dilemma if your four favorite candidates are A, B, C, and D, in that order. If you vote for all four, you might cause B, C, or D to win a seat at the expense of your top choice, A. Or you could put all your eggs in one basket by voting only for A — also known as "bullet voting" — leaving your three other votes unused. Or you might be best served by voting for only A and B or only for A, B, and C. In sum, you have four separate strategies and determining which is your best option requires an accurate prediction of how everyone else is likely to vote.
As a result, our current voting system benefits political "insiders," who are best positioned to predict the likely winners in advance, and puts average voters, who don’t have the time to research the optimal strategy, at a disadvantage. Regardless of the election outcome, the rampant bullet-voting leaves the impression that some are gaming to the system to the detriment of others. Perhaps this helps explain why municipal elections see such low voter turnout.
If we used Choice Voting (IRV for electing multiple candidates) for the At Large offices, you could honestly rank candidates on the ballot in order of preference — A, B, C — without worrying that a later rank could hurt the chances of an earlier rank. If candidate A needs your full vote to get elected, your full vote will count towards A. If A only needs half your vote to win, the other half will count towards B. If B doesn’t have enough votes to also win, that half will instead count towards counts towards C. With Choice Voting, we can wave goodbye to rampant bullet voting and put everyone on a more level playing field in the voting booth. We can make the act of voting less like a casino game and more like an expression of our true democratic preferences.
Easier Military Voting
IRV will make it easier for military and overseas voters by eliminating the narrow window in which the general election ballot must be returned.
Imagine how difficult it must be for a voter who is temporarily overseas, particularly a member of our armed forces, to vote absentee in a Somerville local election. Between the preliminary and general election is a six week window in which the absentee ballot must be: prepared and mailed by the Elections Commission; transported to its foreign destination; filled out and mailed back by the voter; and transported back to Somerville City Hall by the day of the election. The tight turnaround isn’t a problem only for Somerville, but for all local cities and towns in Massachusetts with preliminary elections.
The U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) and the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) of the U.S. Department of Defense recommend ballots be mailed to overseas voters at least 45 days before an election. The six week window the preliminary and general elections — that’s 42 days even before the ballots are printed, assembled, and mailed — puts Somerville in clear violation of the federal recommendation. Plus, the federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizen Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) that provides for write-in absentee ballots does not apply to local races.
In Somerville, the problem facing overseas voters is more than hypothetical. A short drive by our veterans posts and war memorials tell a history of dedication and sacrifice from our city. Read the article on Military.com this past April entitled “Somerville Marines,” which highlights the extensive contributions of Somervillians in the Marine Corps, for example. It’s ironic that those fighting in the name of democratic principles abroad should be so hindered from fulling engaging in the democratic process back home.
Fortunately, the states of Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina and the city of Springfield, IL have already solved the problem. These jurisdictions have elections where, if no candidate receives a majority in the initial election, the two top vote-getters compete in a runoff election. Instead of performing a separate mailing of the runoff ballot, they include an IRV ballot in the initial mailing that allows overseas voters to rank their choices in order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority, then the ranks are used to determine who the voter would prefer in the runoff.
See IncludeEveryVoter.org for more information on using IRV ballots for military and overseas voters. Mailing ranked ballots to these voters is certainly a worthy goal, but an even better solution would be to enact IRV for all local elections, eliminating the preliminary election altogether.
More Positive Campaigns
IRV will encourage more positive campaigning because candidates are at a disadvantage when they turn off supporters of their opponents.
With our current voting system, we have seen political campaigns across the country resort to vicious attacks, mud-slinging, and scare tactics, all designed to whip up their base. Though frequently successful, these scorched-earth strategies take the focus off real issues, depress overall voter turnout, and make us all more cynical about the political process generally.
Fortunately, IRV provides a disincentive to this style of very negative campaigning. Under IRV, if a candidate cannot win the first-choice support of particular voter, the candidate still has an interest in being that voter’s second or third choice in order to ultimately win the runoff. As a result, candidates are less likely to engage in mud-slinging in fear of of turning off their opponents’ supporters and losing that crucial second and third choice support.
The best example of this is the recent IRV elections in San Francisco. According to the New York Times, candidates in the race for seats on the County Board of Supervisors held joint fund raisers and openly praised their opponents. This atmosphere of respect and co-operation leads to debate on real issues facing voters instead of personal attacks and partisan rhetoric.
Choice Voting (IRV for electing multiple candidates) will help the At Large offices more fully represent the entire Somerville community.
Our current method for electing the At Large offices is often known as "winner-take-all," because a demographic with even a slim majority of the votes can win 100% of the seats. Imagine, for example, that 51% of the public want candidates A, B, C, and D to be elected At Large and 49% want candidates E, F, G, and H. With our current system A, B, C, and D are elected, completely diluting the voting power of the 49% minority. With a fairer voting system, such as Choice Voting, the minority would see at least one of their choices elected.
The idea that winner-take-all dilutes the voting power of minorities is not merely hypothetical, but rather lead to serious under-representation of minority voting blocs in practice. In fact, the city of Port Chester, NY, which is 46% Hispanic, was recently found to be liable for a violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act due to their use of a winner-take-all system for their At Large offices that diluted the voting power of the Hispanic minority. Among various potential legal remedies, Port Chester is considering the adoption of Choice Voting. The same minority-dilution dynamic happens in Cincinnati, OH, where the NAACP has just begun a big push for Choice Voting as well.
Choice Voting, if enacted, wouldn’t be entirely new to Somerville. Back in 1949, Somerville voters approved it at the ballot box for elections to the Board of Alderman, but the state legislature barred it from being implemented. If enacted today, it would help the At Large offices more broadly represent the entire Somerville community. Choice Voting achieves the fundamental ideal of minority representation while still preserving majority rule.
Boost Voter Turnout
IRV will lead to an increase in voter turnout.
The sum of IRV’s many benefits is a greater faith and excitement in local elections, which translates into greater participation at the voting booth. More information is available online at SomervilleIRV.org.