Executive Summary (corrections)
This Commission recommends the adoption of Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) for statewide elections as a remedy to a potentially serious defect in Vermont's election laws. Vermont's plurality election rules allow for the election of a candidate with the most, but less than half, of the votes, even if the majority of voters oppose this candidate and prefer a different one. This is a fundamental defect that violates the most basic precept of democracy: majority rule. Today the plurality problem in the case of the offices of Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Treasurer is resolved by falling back on the legislature. If no candidate receives a popular majority, a secret ballot election by the members of the General Assembly, rather than the voters, decides the race. The General Assembly has had to choose state officers 69 times, often electing a candidate that had come in second in popular votes, in one case electing a third-place candidate who had received 3% of the vote, and in another failing to elect a Governor altogether. In 35% of all election years, at least one statewide race has had a result with no majority winner. The problem is likely to get worse beginning in the year 2000 with the advent of public financing and the prospect of greater voter choice with a greater number of credible candidates.
Vermont's voting systems have changed repeatedly through the years. For most of Vermont's history, a majority vote was required to win all single-seat elections, and runoff-like re-votes were common. It wasn't until 1940 that re-votes were completely done away with, and a plurality of first-round votes was deemed sufficient for election to any office other than Governor, Lieutenant Governor or Treasurer. The inconvenience of re-voting was felt to be a bigger problem than the risk of undemocratic outcomes. Since IRV eliminates the inconvenience of re-voting, there is no longer any reason to use an election process that allows for the defeat of the candidate actually preferred by a majority of voters.
As proposed for Vermont, IRV would give voters the option of indicating on their ballot their first choice for each statewide office, as well as who their second, third or subsequent choices are, if their first choice doesn't win. The voters' task is simple. The voters just have to rank candidates in order of preference: 1, 2, 3, etc., or if they prefer, they can still vote for a single candidate as they do presently. To effectively utilize the system voters do not need to learn any of the intricacies of the transfer tabulation methodology, just as hardly any citizens understand how the electoral college actually works. Among Vermont students who answered a survey question after participating in mock elections using IRV, 91% said the balloting was not too difficult and 90% said Vermont should switch to IRV. IRV was invented in Massachusetts around 1870, and is now used by nations around the world, including Ireland and Australia. Voters in these countries and 23 American cities have used preference ballots without difficulty.
Local election officials will face no additional burden, simply counting the first-choice votes, just as they do now. If a candidate achieves a majority, the election is over. If no candidate in a race ends up with a majority of first-choice votes, the ballots are retabulated by a court appointed committee in a manner similar to how a statewide recount is conducted under current law. Any Instant Runoff Voting re-count would mirror the vote count that would occur if all the voters participated in runoff elections, except that voters have no need to return to the polls. The candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. In the subsequent count, first-choice votes for candidates still in the running again count for those candidates, but the voters whose first-choice candidate was defeated have their votes transferred to their second choices, the same as occurs in a traditional runoff. This process of dropping off bottom vote-getters and transferring their votes to their supporters' alternate choices continues, until a candidate gets a majority, or only one candidate remains.
IRV would allow citizens to honestly vote according to their consciences. With Vermont's existing system, some voters struggle with the decision of whether to vote for the candidate they actually prefer, or whether to vote for a perceived "lesser evil" candidate who may have a better chance of winning, for fear of inadvertently helping the candidate the voter likes the least. IRV does not penalize a voter for voting honestly, as can happen with our existing system. IRV reduces, although it does not eliminate, the problem some voters face of feeling their vote has been "wasted." Since it tends to allow a greater range of candidate choices, IRV can create greater voter interest and turnout. Among high school students who participated in mock elections using IRV, 46% said IRV would make them more likely to vote after they turn eighteen and only 1% said it would make them less likely to vote.
IRV is preferable to a two-round runoff election in that it saves money, assures that the deciding election will have maximum voter turnout, and does not face constitutional problems. In a single election, IRV ensures that a candidate actually preferred by a majority of voters can win, and eliminates the existing problem of multiple candidates splintering the vote.
IRV tends to reduce negative campaigning. One reason for this is concern over alienating voters who would not give a nasty campaigner a second-preference vote, which that candidate might need to win. Although negative campaigning has not yet become a widespread problem in Vermont, IRV may help protect campaign civility here.
IRV will not increase the cost of holding elections, other than the minimal cost of conducting recounts when there is the lack of a first-choice majority. There would be some small transition cost for a voter education campaign.
In sum: The IRV reform that this Commission recommends encourages voter participation, eliminates the distorting effect of multiple candidacies, secures direct popular election of state officials, does not increase the cost of elections, and does not give advantage or disadvantage to major parties, minor parties, conservatives, or liberals. IRV assures that a candidate preferred by the majority of voters will not be defeated by a candidate preferred by a minority, and strengthens Vermont's democracy for the next century.