In late 2012, I filed a petition for “instant runoff voting,” also known as “ranked choice voting,” “transferable voting,” or “preference voting.” Let me review the basic rules.
RULE 1: Instead of simply voting for one candidate, you “rank” the candidates in order of preference. If we had instant runoff voting in Pittsfield, the ballot for mayor would have had the four mayoral candidates on it with ovals for “first choice” “second choice” “third choice” and “fourth choice.”
RULE 2: You have to win the election with a “majority” (over 50 percent of the vote) and not a mere “plurality” (the most votes, even if under 50 percent).
So for any given election, if any given candidate gets a majority of the “first choice” votes (not a mere plurality), that candidate wins. But if no candidate has a majority, the candidate cannot win with a mere plurality and there is an “instant run-off election.”
The last-placed candidate is eliminated, and all the second choices of those that voted for the last-placed candidate are counted as a vote. If there is still no candidate with a majority, you repeat the process again with the second-to-last candidate also being eliminated.
The same process can work for at-large races where more than one candidate wins, such as Pittsfield’s councilor at-large where four candidates are elected. As with a race for one candidate, the voter in the at-large race stills ranks candidates by choice. Essentially, you would have four consecutive instant runoff elections for first choice, second choice, third choice and fourth choice, with each consecutive election using the instant run-off process. The twist is that in the at-large election, those that have already won a seat are “eliminated” from the subsequent contests for the remaining seats.
This may sound complicated, but in practice the voter merely needs to picks his or her choices, and the computer software takes care of the rest.
Instant runoff voting makes sure there is no vote splitting by like-minded candidates, with the minority view winning with a mere plurality. You can “vote your heart” because there is no throwaway vote.
A big advantage of instant runoff elections is that they present the option of entirely eliminating the primary or “preliminary election” in non-partisan municipalities as in Pittsfield. So a Republican can have a vote in who will be the register of deeds instead of the real race being in a poorly attended Democrat primary when everyone is asleep.
I talked to city clerk and mayoral candidate Linda Tyer the day after the election. When Pittsfield has a preliminary election, the city has to print paper ballots and make sure there is enough. Then voting machines have to be programmed and set up at the polling places. Police are hired. Each voting location has to be staffed with a warden, a clerk, and four inspectors throughout the election. They all have to be there one-half hour before polls open at 8 a.m., and be there after polls close at 8 p.m. until all the votes are tallied. Then there is the staff at the city clerk’s office.
For a ballpark figure on the cost, the Pittsfield Gazette reported on February 4, 2010 that Tyer estimated the primary for the special election for U.S. Senate on Dec. 8, 2009 cost the city $22,858 and the Jan. 19, 2010 general election cost $25,016.
On Nov. 3, 2012, I reminded voters in my Eagle column, “A case for instant runoff voting,” of the time Steve Fillio ran for mayor of Pittsfield as the third mayoral candidate, necessitating a preliminary. Around that time, I filed a petition to have the city consider instant runoff voting. The City Council referred it to the charter committee which ruled it outside of its jurisdiction.
In Tuesday’s preliminary election, there was only a race for mayor, a seemingly purposeless election with two real contenders and two long-shots who were ignored by voters. The money spent on this poorly attended preliminary election could have been better spent on equipment for a high school sports team, scenery for a high school play, or payment towards a police cruiser rather than pushing two candidates off a stage.