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Proponents of Voting Reform Meet at MIT

By Nathan Collins


With memories of late 2000 Florida and other election nightmares fresh in their minds, voting reform leaders gathered at MIT to discuss a new proposal: instant runoff voting.

In this system, known as IRV, a voter ranks each candidate in an election. The candidates are ranked on the basis of all ballots, and the lowest-ranked candidate is removed from consideration. New ranks are made, and the process continues until one candidate has a majority of votes.

Because IRV allows voters to vote for third-party candidates unlikely to win without disadvantaging a preferred major party, it has become an attractive proposal for some third parties, especially the Green Party.

New system may expand democracy

If you cast a vote for a small-party candidate, “you may feel your vote is wasted,” said Peter Vickery of Fair Vote Massachusetts, one of four speakers at the MIT Greens and MIT College Democrats-sponsored Forum on Voting Reform last night in room 6-120. “That certainly wouldn’t be true in IRV.”

State Representative Alice Wolf said that she became interested in the voting method after discussions about how to increase voter turnout.

Voters often feel “that they can’t express their opinion adequately,” Wolf said. The current system is “not the kind of system that gets people excited” about voting, she said.

Ron Bell, founder of Dunk The Vote, said that he was working to reform voting because many -- young black men, especially -- felt disenfranchised. Bell’s group runs a basketball tournament that requires participants to register to vote.

After the 2000 U.S. Presidential election, many people told Bell that their votes didn’t count.

“Now,” Bell said, “we’re focused on election reform.”

“We have to make sure those 20,000 [who registered at Dunk The Vote] go out and vote.”

Jim Henderson of MassIRV said many “voices are getting shut out” because of plurality voting.

Vickery said that instant runoff voting could cost less than other systems. He cited an example of a small Massachusetts town that spent $12,000 to hold a runoff election after a crowded first election. Though he was not sure of the cost of switching to an instant runoff system, “it’s not going to cost as much” as holding runoff elections, he said.

IRV system has drawbacks

During a question-and-answer session, an audience member raised some concerns about the instant runoff system’s complexity.

Henderson said that much of complexity was in the background, and that all voters had to do was rank candidates.

Another audience member, Robert Ritter, who identified himself as a Cambridge election official, said that because instant runoff voting does not require voters to rank all candidates, it does not guarantee that a candidate can win a majority. Vickery, who has worked on instant runoff legislation, said he was trying to create a system that would work as well as possible.

Voting reform meets obstacles

One potential stumbling block is the Fourteenth Amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution, Vickery said. The amendment, dating to the 1850s, states that candidates must win a plurality of the votes in an election. Vickery said that he did not think the instant runoff voting actually violated this requirement.

Any changes in voting in Massachusetts will have to come at the state level. Wolf has filed one bill (Docket #1304) which covers all state executive offices and U.S. Congressional offices for primaries and general elections. Representative Ellen Story is sponsoring two bills, H2784 and H2785, that cover state elections in general and primary elections respectively.

Several speakers said that instant runoff voting worked for executive offices, whereas proportional representation systems worked better for legislative offices.

The Cambridge City Council uses a form of proportional representation in its elections, though unlike its incarnations in England and elsewhere the system is not based on political parties.

The Undergraduate Association uses the instant runoff system, also known as plurality-plus-elimination, in its elections.