Takoma Park to try out Instant Run off voting

by Greg Kohn

Takoma Park voters will encounter a special voting system for just the second time when the residents of Ward 3 decide between three candidates in the city election in November.

The Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) system requires voters to rank the candidates in races between more than two. In the case that no candidate garners a majority of the votes, the last-place candidate’s votes are redistributed to the others based on the indicated rankings in a process that continues until there is a majority winner.

“Instant Runoff Voting handles increased choice much better than plurality voting,” said Rob Ritchie, executive director of FairVote. FairVote, an organization based in Takoma Park that calls itself the center for voting and democracy, successfully pushed to implement IRV in 2005. “Now we get a winner with majority support when matched up against his or her top opponent.”

While the referendum to install IRV passed with 83.6 percent of the vote, there was some concern with the degree of difficulty in using the system. However, there were only a few people who requested new ballots after making a mistake, according to Jessie Carpenter, the city clerk. Additionally, an exit poll conducted by FairVote after a three-candidate race in 2007, the only time voters have encountered the system, revealed over 88 percent thought IRV was easy to use.

The very fact that IRV has been used so rarely was another point of contention during the push to implement the system, Carpenter said. “There were those who questioned the need for IRV because so many of our races are uncontested,” she explained. “On the positive side, some saw it as a way to encourage more people to run for office, although it has not generally had that effect yet.”

The three-candidate race in 2007, while requiring voters to indicate rankings on the ballot, did not invoke the redistribution of votes because the winner earned a majority right away. Consequently, this year’s Ward 3 election between Kay Daniels-Cohen, Mike Graul and Jeffrey Noel-Nosbaum could be the first race in Takoma Park to require an instant runoff.

“I am thrilled to be involved in potentially the first race in the city to use IRV,” Noel-Nosbaum said. “I think this system will be great for my campaign as one of the two, lower-visibility candidates in the race because it will allow our supporters to register their preference without jeopardizing their second-choice candidate.”