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Instant Run-Off Voting Could Save US Taxpayers Millions - 2003-11-03

When voters around the country go to the polls on November 4, they will be using the traditional American election system: one voter, one candidate. But there's a new system in town, called Instant Runoff voting. On this type of ballot, voters choose more than one candidate, and rank their choices. This system could save U.S. cities and states millions of dollars if they're willing to pony up the costs of the transition.

Here's how Instant Runoff Voting works: When voters get their ballot, they choose a first, second and third choice candidate. After the election, the candidate with the lowest number of votes, let's call him Bob, is eliminated. If you voted for Bob, your vote switches to your second choice candidate and so on until there's only one candidate left: the winner.

Currently, when no candidate in a race gets enough votes to win outright, voters must return to the polls a month or so later to choose between the two top vote-getters. According to Steven Hill, of the non-profit Center for Voting and Democracy, which has been promoting Instant Runoff voting, it eliminates the need for runoffs, in primaries and general elections. That, he says, will save an enormous amount of money. "Sometimes it takes as many as 4 elections to elect a single office, and each time, it's costing more and more money for each election. Even if there's just two people on the ballot, you've got to set up all the polling stations state-wide. It's extremely expensive to hold these run-off elections," he says.

A bill to introduce Instant Runoff Voting in Massachusetts is being considered by a committee in the state legislature. Its author, attorney Peter Vicory, says the state is ready for a change because it schedules so many preliminary elections. "Preliminary elections cost a few thousand dollars per municipality, now if you just have one round of voting, you are halving the cost per each municipality. You multiply that by the number of towns and cities that have preliminary elections in Massachusetts, you're talking a pretty big saving," he says.

Mr. Vicory estimates it will cost about $2 million to upgrade the state's voting machines. But no city or state has done a thorough cost benefit analysis of Instant Runoff Voting, and not everyone sees a smooth transition.

"It's difficult, it's a huge challenge. Not just for our department, but also for our city," says John Arntz, director of elections in San Francisco. The city next year will be the first American city to use Instant Runoff. Mr. Arntz says the city will certainly save money by eliminating runoffs, each of which costs between $1 and $2.5 million.

But he says San Francisco will need to spend millions of dollars up front to enact the new system, known locally as ranked choice voting. "Most of my department was devoted to getting ranked choice voting happening, right there that's several hundred thousand dollars in staff time. Then you're looking at machines. We have an optical scan system, and we have a contract with our current vendors to modify those machines, and that contract is $1.6 million. If you go to touch screens, that's potentially $15 million," he says.

On top of that, he says, teaching the public how to understand and use the new system can be very expensive. A lot more than the $750,000 San Francisco has set aside for voter outreach and education.

Experienced poll workers anywhere, like Cynthia Rodrigues, who helps out in California's Marin County, will tell you that voters are wary of any change in the way they cast ballots. "It can be really difficult, it catches people off, it catches them by surprise, they're not prepared, it takes them a while to integrate the information. It's usually disconcerting," she says.

Still, 20 states are looking into some form of Instant Runoff voting.