Time for RI to consider instant runoff voting

Posted 11/18/14

For the second consecutive cycle, Rhode Islanders have elected a governor by plurality.

Democratic General Treasurer Gina Raimondo will take the oath of office in January, having garnered nearly …

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Time for RI to consider instant runoff voting


For the second consecutive cycle, Rhode Islanders have elected a governor by plurality.

Democratic General Treasurer Gina Raimondo will take the oath of office in January, having garnered nearly 41 percent of the vote. Republican Cranston Mayor Allan Fung received roughly 36 percent support, while Moderate Party candidate Robert Healey unexpectedly surged to win more than 21 percent of ballots cast.

The results were quite similar in 2010, when Lincoln Chafee, running as an independent, won office with approximately 36 percent of the vote. He narrowly bested Republican John Robitaille, who received slightly less than 34 percent of ballots cast. Democratic candidate Frank Caprio placed third with 23 percent support. Moderate Party candidate Ken Block received 6.5 percent of the vote.

In many corners, the results from Nov. 4 have led to renewed calls for runoff voting in the Ocean State. Fung, whose bid many observers believe suffered most from Healey’s late entry into the campaign, has come out in support of a runoff system. Healey, whose candidacy was fueled by, and clearly tapped into, frustration with the two-party system, has called specifically for the institution of instant runoff voting, or IRV.

The case for an IRV system, in which voters would rank candidates by preference on the initial ballot, with second and third choices added to the top finishers’ totals until one received a majority, is compelling. The shift would certainly alter the political process in ways that may prove positive.

A candidate like Healey, for example, would likely hold more sway – and be taken more seriously by the political and media establishment – were it clear from the outset that his supporters may ultimately determine the race. That would enhance the platform by which third-party candidates bring new ideas, energy and voters into the process.

It is worth noting that the largest block of voters in Rhode Island consists of those registered as “unaffiliated.” And under an IRV system, voters may decide not to select secondary and tertiary candidates, maintaining the option, effectively, for a “protest vote.”

Consider, too, that having an IRV system in place may have dramatically altered the results of this year’s campaign. While Fung topped Block with a majority share in the GOP primary, Raimondo led the field with 42 percent over Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and newcomer Clay Pell. Had Pell’s supporters been divided between the other two candidates, Taveras may have won the Democratic nomination.

It’s impossible, of course, to know how events would have played out with IRV in place. It does seem clear, however, that it would have made Raimondo’s path to the governor’s office more difficult. She may have – perhaps even likely would have – won anyway. But given that a significant majority of Rhode Islanders voted for someone else this year, IRV would have left little doubt that the winner truly reflected the public’s will to the greatest degree possible.

We feel a straight runoff vote, on the other hand, would achieve the opposite. In that scenario, Raimondo and Fung would have gone on to a second election, one that would carry additional costs, result in a highly condensed secondary campaign and probably draw a far lesser turnout.

The formalized focus on the 50 percent figure, one that is essentially arbitrary, despite the argument many make over the importance of a so-called “mandate,” would exacerbate many of the problems citizens have with the campaign cycle as currently constituted.

With only one path to victory – or at least to avoiding a potentially unpredictable runoff – candidates would be more likely to engage in negative, non-substantive advertising and rhetoric. The horserace mentality of our politics would be amplified even further, leaving less and less space in which to debate and focus on the real issues.

It may be that the two most recent gubernatorial races are an aberration. Four and eight and 12 years from now, the back-to-back plurality winners may well be seen as exceptions in a history dominated by those who received an outright majority.

We do not view plurality winners as some failure of the system, or even as a source of concern. A candidate’s ability to garner 50 percent or more of the vote has no real bearing on how that person will perform in office. Many have been elected by large margins, only to prove themselves unworthy of the task or the public’s trust.

We do, however, support exploring IRV as an option for Rhode Island. It is clear a growing number of voters find themselves at odds with both major parties and searching for a new option. We believe IRV would encourage involvement in the political process, raise the level of our civic discourse and help ensure our elections reflect the will of voters as closely as possible.


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  • nardopolo

    The problem with the plurality voting method (limit of a single choice) is that it only ever allows for two viable candidates. The point of reform isn't necessarily to provide a majority winner, but to use a method that allows for multiple viable candidates to compete on a level playing field.

    IRV is one option that allows voters more expression on the ballot, but there are others that both perform better in terms of reflecting the will of the electorate and are less cumbersome to implement. IRV's multi-round nature is opaque to voters in terms of how it actually chooses the winner, and because it requires all the rankings to be centrally located before the count can proceed, it is not summable by precinct.

    A system that embodies all of IRV's advantages without its weaknesses is R-IRV - you can check out here: http://equalvote.co/r_irv . Basically, instead of rank ordering candidates, all the voters score the candidates on a scale (0 - 5, for example). The two highest rated candidates advance to an instant runoff where the voters' scoring differences are used to determine which candidate gets which voter's vote. It's always two simple stages, and it shows much more clearly each candidate's approval from the electorate. Plus it can be summed by precinct and avoids some of the weird math problems that IRV has.

    Tuesday, November 18, 2014 Report this