Friday, November 03, 2006

Blagojevich-Topinka-Whitney and Bean-Scheurer-McSweeney races show the need for ranked ballots

There are three high-profile three-way races in Illinois. Both of them show what an antiquated election system we still use and the need to modernize our elections to allow for ranked ballots.

In one of the most hotly-contested congressional races in the country, incumbent Melissa Bean (D) is challenged by David McSweeney (R) and Bill Scheurer (M). Scheurer is running on a progressive platform and is thus a threat to the Bean campaign much more than the McSweeney campaign. Bean looks like the likely victor and is running on a DLC Democratic record (embrace most of the Bush tax cut and free trade agenda) with the implied calculation that her affluent northwest suburban district likes economic policies that benefit higher incomes. For voters who don't like the Bush tax cuts or corporate-backed free trade policies or the Iraqi occupation, it's a tough pill to swallow: vote for the guy with the platform you agree with and risk electing the guy you really don't agree with or vote for the woman who is with you about half the time and send the message that it's OK to embrace most of the Bush economic agenda.

[UPDATE: Scheurer is also pro-life, so there's a potential pull from GOP base voters as well. Thanks Skeeter]

Most progressives are sucking it up in order to elect a Democratic majority, but imagine the consternation if McSweeney wins and the margin of victory is half of the Scheurer vote.

This is all because we don't have a runoff election to ensure the winner earns a majority of the vote. And because we don't have a runoff, the majority of voters can split the vote (in this case between Bean and Scheurer) allowing a candidate to get elected that the majority of voters rejected (in this hypothetical, McSweeney). That's dumb. But it happens a lot.

The solution is to have a runoff election, like most municipalities do. A better solution is to hold an instant runoff election.

On Tuesday, Oakland, Minneapolis and Pierce County (WA) will all vote to implement instant runoff voting. I think they will all win. They would join San Francisco, Burlington VT, Ireland and Australia by using instant runoff voting.

Here are the campaign websites (with a particular link to the neat flash demonstrations of IRV on each site if they have one -- they are worth checking out).

Fun flash demonstration on how IRV works called Elect-A-Date
Pierce County, WA
Their flash demonstration

Ranked ballots with instant runoff voting is a little more resonant, perhaps, in the gubernatorial race where both the Blagojevich and Topinka campaigns believe the Green Party's Rich Whitney's campaign is pulling away their voters. Rich Miller is making the point that all eyes for the last four days of the campaign should be on the 10-15% of the electorate that are now (pollsters say) planning to vote for Whitney to see which way they will break as it becomes clear that Whitney won't win.

The trouble is, lots of voters would like to vote for a 6% income tax in exchange for more money for schools and a lower property tax as well as send a message for cleaner government, but do have a preference between Topinka and Blagojevich.

Our stupid voting system doesn't allow that to happen. So the major parties actively discourage third party candidates from getting on the ballot which is a major draw of resources for everyone (as an election lawyer, I might benefit from that, but it is a waste).

If Whitney gets more than 5% of the vote, and he almost certainly will, this problem will get a lot worse, because then the Green Party will become an established party in Illinois and thus get access to the ballot by filing for a Green Party primary election. That will likely create lots of three-way races in 2008.

The demand for a modern voting system like instant runoff voting is growing in Illinois. And while I'm a proud Democratic Party member, I also believe we're better off with a multi-party system and three or four candidates on the ballot instead of one or two.

I'm curious what others think about our election system now given three candidates on the ballot and whether we ought to hold a runoff or instant runoff in the future.


Skeeter 4:22 PM  

Schuerer is actually radically anti-abortion. I thought he would pull votes from McSweeney who doesn't have the best pro-life credentials.

Dan Johnson-Weinberger 4:23 PM  

Missed that one. Thanks. (I just saw his anti-CAFTA and pro-estate tax stuff). I guess he pulls from both candidates. I should update the post,

Anonymous,  5:16 PM  

Of course we should have majority elections! Bring on the Instant Runoff Voting.

Not likely,  9:45 PM  

This is far more radical than it seems in terms of the power to change the way things work.

If Illinois suddenly implemented an instant run-off today I believe you would see Whitney receive well over 20%. If the option had been in place all along, the possibility of a stronger Green candidate would have generated enough free media and debate invitations could have boosted him into real contention. Think of it this way: in a state of 10 voters today, 3 like Blagojevich, 2 like Topinka, 2 are leaning Blago, 1 is leaning Topinka, 1 is undecided and 1 is voting for Whitney. If the 3 leaners could vote for Whitney w/o fear of helping their 3rd choice, Whitney would get 2 votes from the Blago leaners and 1 vote from the Topinka leaner. End result? 4 for Whitney, 3 for Blago, 2 for Topinka, and 1 undecided. If those 2 hard TOpinka votes listed Whitney ahead of their Blago as their second choice, the instant runoff gives Whitney 6, Blago 3, and 1 undecided.

Pretty powerful stuff -- which is why it's highly unlikely to happen. It throws a wrench into the weltanschauung of every officeholder in the state.

Lovie's Leather 11:18 PM  

I'll support the instant run-off polling as soon as the Redfern amendment is passed....

Dan Johnson-Weinberger 3:02 PM  

Not likely: I'm not so sure. I think know the third party candidates are universally ignored and not really challenged (on the lack of any experience in government, say, or on some inconsistencies). If voters did have the right to rank candidates, I think the major party candidates could fairly and directly challenge the minor party candidates and create a more policy-oriented, substantive debate than just "the other person is corrupt." One nice dynamic of multi-candidate races is that negative advertising doesn't work very well, because tearing down one person might help a third person and not the person tearing down the target. Given the endless barrage of turnout-suppressing negative ads that overwhelm network television, that would be a good thing. Finally, third party candidates that have minority support are unlikely to ever win a runoff election where a majority of support is required. And lovie, what's the latest on the Redfern Amendment? I thought that was just about the Illinois House of Representatives and wouldn't have anything to do with elections where only one person (like governor or U.S. Congressman) is to be elected.

the Other Anonymous,  8:00 PM  

I normally would be sympathetic to ranking candidates and similar reforms. Nevertheless, the Blagojevich-Topinka-Whitney situation makes me glad that we don't rank candidates in this state. I voted for Whitney for a reason: the other candidates make me ill. (All due respect to Eric Zorn and his point about the unfair trashing given to Topinka, but her lack of a meaningful response does, in fact, lower her in my eyes.)

I want my Whitney vote to mean something, and if I had to choose a second choice, it wouldn't.

Unless I could write in Tim Nieukirk as my second choice . . .

Dan Johnson-Weinberger 3:08 PM  

Well, you wouldn't *have* to cast a second-choice vote. You could if you wanted to, but you wouldn't be forced to do so. At least, that's the type of reform I would advocate for (and I don't think any American use of IRV requires votes to rank more than one candidate).

Extreme Wisdom 11:13 PM  

DJW wrote:

"One nice dynamic of multi-candidate races is that negative advertising doesn't work very well, because tearing down one person might help a third person and not the person tearing down the target."

BINGO! Candidates have to run on positives. Sure, one could still point out opponent's votes on various bills, but the fact is that candidates would eventually have to respond the best ideas put forth.

IRV is a fantastic idea, and just the type of reform needed in this moribund State.

A simpler reform would be to equalize ballot access for all comers (parties and independents), and simply have all run in the primary, with the top 2 run-off in Nov. Obviously, a 50% +1 in March would be a winner.

It's the functional equivalent of IRV with more openings for innovators. If a 3rd place finisher captured a chunk of votes based upon a new idea or a compelling story, one of the top 2 would try to do-opt their positives.

All in all, a much better system.

Extreme Wisdom 11:15 PM  


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