Instant runoff voting system not living up to promise
By Maurice Mahoney • Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Instant runoff voting was presented to Burlington by Terry Bouricius and other proponents in 2004 as an improved method of voting. We were told that instant runoff voting would provide a true preference of the majority of voters and would be an improvement over the existing system, which called for a runoff in the mayoral election if no candidate received at least 40 percent of the vote. Since there had never been a need for a runoff in the Burlington election this seemed like a solution for a nonproblem.
In the 2005 March election many people were absorbed with the Y/Moran plant issue and paid little attention to the IRV question on the ballot. The only time Burlington residents voted on IRV for the mayor's office was 2005 and they approved the item with little or no discussion.
Now we have had four years to experiment with instant runoff voting and evaluate it based on our experience. Question 5 asking Burlington voters to repeal IRV came about as a result of a citizen's petition supported by Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives.
This broad based group of voters has come to the conclusion that IRV has not lived up to its promise.
First, it does not create a real majority. The IRV "majority" is a manufactured number after adding third place votes. When an incumbent mayor can be declared the majority winner after receiving 29 percent of first place votes, something seems goofy about the system.
Secondly, IRV does not have a real runoff. In a real runoff election, people know the two candidates and can make an informed decision. Under IRV you guess who might be in the runoff. It's Vegas voting and you might have a better chance at bingo.
IRV proponents say their system provides a clearer choice of the voters' preference. But in the 2009 election, Andy Montroll had more first and second place votes than either Kurt Wright or Bob Kiss and he came in third.
The election of 2009 left voters confused and angry, distrustful of a voting system that seemed to defy logic and the will of the majority. Even the IRV created "majority" was not a majority of the total votes cast for mayor.
The new system seemed to favor incumbents and throw out majority preference. How could you possibly declare 29 percent of first place votes a majority? Is it any wonder that people are saying they want a chance to give their opinion of this system now that we have tried it?
More than 2,000 Burlington voters have signed a citizens' initiative, the very essence of our democracy, to have their voice heard again. That initiative is Question 5: Repeal instant runoff voting and restore a true runoff system if Burlington ever needs it in a mayoral race.
The IRV proponents try to cloud the issue and distract voters with chatter about 50 percent matters. Interestingly, the councilors and Legislators telling you how important 50 percent is do not have a 50 percent provision in their own elections and have never complained.
So maybe it doesn't matter that much. What does matter is that the people of Burlington have a voting system which they understand and have faith in.
What does matter is that our voting system is understandable for everyone and doesn't have a built in bias or angle that favors anybody. Vote Yes on No. 5 and repeal IRV.
Maurice Mahoney of South Burlington is a former Democratic Burlington city councilor.
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