Report: Instant runoff system would come with a price

This is a 16 March 2007 article by DANIEL BARLOW Vermont Press Bureau, with some corrective notes by us added.

MONTPELIER – Operating an instant runoff voting system for some statewide races would cost at least $130,000 more each year, with the cost possibly increasing to nearly a half million dollars depending on how many races needed runoff counts, according to a state study.

Ballot printing and mailing costs under an IRV system would result in the state spending $130,000 to $280,000 more each year to fund elections, depending on how many candidates were running in the election cycle. In addition to that, runoff recounts for each race would cost about $45,000 to fund.

That means the cost of an IRV election with a three-page ballot and four races that needed runoff recounts could cost about $460,000.

The estimates were contained in a 37-page report prepared by the Vermont secretary of state's office and a research team from the University of Vermont. The report, released this week, does not make a judgment on IRV, but explains how it would be implemented.

"This was designed to be an administrative roadmap," said Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, who Thursday presented the report to a Senate Committee considering an IRV bill. "The Legislature needs real information and real choices as they consider the issue."

Burlington Mayor Bob Kiss became the first Vermont executive elected by IRV to hold office last year. The city voted in favor of using the system in 2005 and Kiss' election in a five-way mayoral race was the first under the new system.
[Note added by WDS: Kiss would also have been elected under the old-style plurality counting process.]

Proposed bills in the State Senate and House would bring that system – which supporters say ensures the election of a candidate supported by a majority of people – to some statewide races across Vermont.

Under the IRV system, voters rank the preferences of candidates instead of selecting a single choice. If no candidate receives a 50 percent majority, the lowest vote getter is eliminated and voters' second choices are added to the tally. The process repeats until a candidate has a majority of votes.
[Note added by WDS: this actually is not a fully correct description of the IRV process. Also it seems not correct to claim the IRV winer is "supported by a majority of people."]

Rep. Peter Welch and Sen. Bernard Sanders testified in support of IRV before the Senate Government Operations Committee on Thursday, which hopes to complete work on the proposal before "crossover" begins today.

Welch called IRV the "tool that enhances voter choice" and Sanders touted the voting option as a way of increasing excitement with residents regarding their choices in political elections that involve more than two candidates.

Both men also suggested that IRV corrects the state's unusual Constitutional provision that places the power of appointing the winner of some statewide races to the Legislature in the absence of a majority. Sanders said such a move would be a disaster.

"I believe that we feel better about the situation when we know that the person who is elected ends up having a majority of the votes," Sanders said, according to a transcript of the testimony.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, chairwoman of the committee, said she wants to move the bill before "crossover" ends, but added that the body is also scheduled to finish up several other high-profile bills this week.

And there are still some unanswered questions regarding implementing IRV, she said, including how many races it would be for, how many choices voters would rank in larger elections and how to conduct the runoffs.

"It actually gave me pause when I realized that we don't have machines to conduct the runoffs," White said. "Some of this may need to be conducted by hand. That actually changed my position on this a little."

The report did point out a handful of possible downsides regarding the IRV system, including that the system was confusing to people of lower education levels, according to surveys.
[Note added by Rob Richie: Poll question in Burlington "The ballot was confusing." %Agreeing: High School Degree or less: 14.5%, Some College: 12.0%, College Grad: 7.0%, Post Grad Degree: 6.1%.]

There were also some rare statistical paradoxes that could result in a candidate not preferred by the majority to end with the highest number of votes. Such an aberration occurred in 1974 in Michigan, resulting in residents rescinding the IRV system one year after voting for it.

Note added by WDS:
The Ann Arbor 1975 mayoral election conducted under IRV went as follows:

First Preference Votes for J.E. Stephenson(R)             14,453  (49%)
First Preference Votes for Al H. Wheeler(D)               11,815  (40%)
First Preference Votes for Carol Ernst(Human Rights)       3,181  (11%)
First Preference votes for Miscellaneous Write-In Canddts     52     
Total Valid First Preference Votes                        29,501

Then after all candidates but S & W were eliminated, the count of 
the Second Preference Votes gave the following vote totals:

       Wheeler           14,684  (50.18%;  wins by 121 votes)
       Stephenson        14,563  (49.82%)
       Total             29,262  (total shrunk because some ballots did not specify a 2nd choice)

Then Stephenson sued, challenging the Constitutionality of the IRV system,
but lost the case.  IRV was then rescinded by the voters in an April 1976 special referendum,
and then Wheeler ran for re-election in 1977 under ordinary plurality voting this time and
won by a single vote!  Another court challenge ensued, wherein 20 voters were found
to have been nonresidents.  To resolve the matter the election was redone whereupon
Wheeler lost his seat to L.D.Belcher(R).

My personal view of this is that, at least in this particular election, IRV worked
as advertised to produce a better election result than plain plurality voting, albeit both
the 1975 and 1977 elections were so close that it is unlikely they can be trusted (margin far 
below typical "spoiled ballot" rates and accidental vote rates).
There have been elections where IRV caused (or would have caused)
bad election results compared to other voting systems, but this on the face of it
was not one of them.  

Research also revealed that Republicans are the least likely to be in favor of IRV. Only 36.5 percent surveyed outside the polls in Burlington last year said they supported the system, compared with 80 percent of Progressives and 64 percent of Democrats.

"While a sound argument can be made that IRV functions in a manner to select candidates based on majority preferences, the minority party may see it as an unfair changing of the rules of the game that deprives them of a chance of winning when their opposition is in such disarray as to offer multiple candidates," the report states.

Rep. David Zuckerman, P-Burlington, a strong supporter of IRV, who last year requested the secretary of state conduct the study, said he appreciated the report, but added that he believes some of its "red flags" may be inflated.

"There are less complicated and more viable options that the ones raised in that report," he said.

Contact Daniel Barlow at

Return to main page