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Second choice

The ills of instant-runoff voting
By AL DIAMON  |  January 27, 2010

The word "instant" makes me suspicious.

When applied to food, it's a synonym for "mediocre flavoring with a chemical aftertaste," as in instant soup, instant coffee, and instant mashed potatoes.

When used in reference to health care, it means "fraudulent." Which is why there's no such thing as instant pain relief, instant weight loss, or instant zit removal.

There's instant gratification (unsatisfying), instant debt relief (unreliable), and instant messaging (unendurable). John Lennon's "Instant Karma"? Unlistenable.

I'll make an exception for instant replay in sports.

But when it comes to politics, the word has even less credibility. Elected officials never do anything instantly, unless it's grab their paychecks and get out of town. And if they ever do fulfill a campaign promise for instant action, they're certain to cause more problems than they solve (the Maine law passed in 2009 that accidentally made it almost impossible to hold wine tastings comes to mind — instantly).

Which brings us to the Portland Charter Commission (motto: No, Sorry, We Don't Book Bus Tours — It's A Different Kind Of Charter). Members of this esteemed assemblage are considering a proposal to have the state's most populous city elect its mayor by something called instant-runoff voting (its pals call it IRV).

Under this system, voters wouldn't choose a single candidate for the post. Instead, they'd rank all the contenders, from best to worst. If nobody got a majority of the "best" votes, the last-place finisher would be eliminated (humanely, of course) and his or her support redistributed to the candidates who ranked second on those ballots. This process would continue until either someone gained more than 50 percent, or everyone got sick of recounting and went home in disgust.

IRV is used in many places, such as Cambridge, Massachusetts, where voters recently faced a ballot containing 19 names for City Council. The recounting took longer than the NFL playoffs. Can't wait to try that with Maine's 23-candidate gubernatorial election.

IRV is also the preferred method of picking members of parliament in Papua New Guinea, the House of Representatives in Fiji, and the winners of science fiction's Hugo Awards. Good to know the little guys still stand a chance against Avatar.

Supporters say IRV offers many advantages. In a 2006 op-ed, Justin Alfond, now a Democratic state senator from Portland, claimed it would elevate decision-making to a higher level.

"In a four-way race," Alfond wrote, "we will no longer have to consider how we think other people are voting so as to prevent our least-favorite candidate from winning."

Often, all the candidates are my least-favorite. Does IRV give me the option of multiple last-place ratings?

The Maine Legislature has been faced with bills to institute instant-runoff voting statewide three times in the last decade, but rejected all of them. A 2005 study by the Secretary of State's Office found the switch would be costly — San Francisco spent more than $2.7 million to convert — and difficult to implement for local election officials, many of whom still count ballots by hand. The Maine Municipal Association argued the ranked ballots would be confusing for voters, who sometimes have difficulty deciding simple races between Tweedledee and Tweedledum (although that may not be entirely their fault).

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  Topics: News Features , U.S. Government, Maine State Legislature, Tom Connolly,  More more >
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