The Merits of Instant-Runoff Voting

by Paul Heintz | 10/31/05 6:00am

I won't pretend to fully understand the political machinations and maneuverings of our tremendously committed alumni with regard to the election of trustees. Just as the members of the class of 2002 and 2003 baffle me every time they show up for yet another Winter Carnival or Green Key, the folks who spend hundreds of dollars on full-page ads in The Dartmouth and seemingly invest all their time in alumni politics make me wonder whether I'll spend the next sixty years of my life rehashing my glory days over blitz from a cubicle in Manhattan.

I do, however, understand one thing quite well, and that is Instant-Runoff Voting. Not only do I hail from one of the few municipalities that utilizes IRV in local elections -- Cambridge, Mass. -- I also happened to have lost the student body presidency last spring in the sixth round of Instant-Runoff Voting after winning a majority of votes in the first five rounds (self-call).

After the election, many of the folks who supported my candidacy blamed the recent institution of IRV in Student Assembly elections as the reason for my loss. While it's true that I would probably have won the election if SA hadn't switched to IRV, it was a good thing that they did. Likewise, the election of trustees should be done using the same method.

Instant-Runoff Voting is an oft-misunderstood but exceptionally democratic method of voting. In IRV, voters rank, in numerical order, as many of their preferred candidates as they like. All the first-place votes are counted and, if a candidate wins a majority of the votes, he or she is elected. If nobody wins a majority in the first round, the lowest vote-getter in each subsequent round gets eliminated -- with their votes redistributed -- until only one candidate remains. The "recycled" votes are redistributed to the candidate that the voter ranked as his or her next choice. The system, therefore, winnows the field to the most widely-accepted candidates and then confers victory upon the candidate preferred by a majority of voters.

The practical result of this method is that consensus candidates are generally elected and second- and third-tier candidates cannot effectively "spoil" the outcome. In the 2000 presidential election, IRV would have handed the victory to Al Gore -- assuming that most Naderites would have ranked the former Vice-President as their number-two choice. In the 2004 SA election, Ralph Davies '05 probably would have picked up the extra vote or two he needed to defeat Julia Hildreth '05. And in last spring's election, it ensured Noah Riner's victory over me.

Philip Salinger wrote in Friday's paper ("Alums spar over proposed constitution," Oct. 28) that IRV is "a system that has traditionally disadvantaged outsider candidates." While it's true that many outsider candidates -- myself included -- lose elections we might have won with different rules, it's not because of our "outsider"status, but rather because we represent only a narrow plurality of voters.

As one can determine from a close reading of last spring's SA election results, those who did not vote for me as their number-one choice were unlikely to rank me as their second, third or fourth choice. Noah Riner, on the other hand, managed to accumulate the majority of runoff votes from each of our eliminated competitors. This means that although more voters supported my candidacy than the others' individual candidacies, Noah was preferred over me by the electorate as a whole.

Complicated, huh? It is. And it's made more complicated when folks like Trustee T. J. Rodgers '70 obfuscate the issue further by saying things like, "The reason I don't like Instant-Runoff Voting is that if several establishment candidates run against one petition candidate [in trustee elections], the system allows the establishment votes to compound and add up against the lone petition candidate." The specter of compounded votes is a red herring used by those who benefit from the current nonsensical method of voting that allows two marginal candidates to defeat four mainstream candidates simply by splitting the electorate into two camps: those who support the status quo and those who want to radically revert to the bygone days of conservative dominance.

Trustees Peter Robinson '79 and Todd Zywicki '88 won last spring's Trustee elections not because they were preferred by a majority of the electorate, but because they were running against a field of four "establishment" candidates who had to split "establishment" votes four ways, while Robinson and Zywicki were the likely recipients of both votes cast by supporters of the "petition" camp. [Remember, voters can cast one vote per open trustee slot under the current rules.] Resultingly, the petition candidates won the election with 21 percent and 20 percent of the votes, respectively. Like me, they excited a plurality of their constituents, but they were probably not as acceptable to a majority of alumni.

Leaders -- whether they are Student Body Presidents or Trustees -- ought not to be radical outsiders who represent narrow pluralities of voters, but rather should represent the electorate as a whole, by consensus. The raison d'tre of outsider candidates is to raise issues that are being ignored and to demonstrate what changes need to be made to the eventual victor.

If we continue to utilize the same tired system of electing trustees by plurality, the Board of Trustees is likely to be taken over by petition candidates one-by-one until the entire body is dominated by a cabal of right-wing traditionalists who represent the narrow-minded views primarily found in such illustrious publications as The Dartmouth Review. Do we really want that? I don't think so.

I'm not saying that I support every decision made by the Wright Administration. Clearly I think Parkhurst would benefit from hearing the voices of dissenters like Rodgers, Zywicki and Robinson. Wright and his leadership team have bungled several key issues (hi Student Life Initiative, cutting the swim team, enacting a ridiculous alcohol policy, and calling the football program "antithetical" to our academic mission), but overall the Administration is doing a very good job of keeping the College's best interest in mind and preserving Dartmouth's tradition of excellence. If these conservative petition candidates continue to secure seats on the Board of Trustees, we will likely regress to a pre-1972 mindset (Goodbye females, et al.).

There are a score of other important issues currently being debated by the alumni governing boards, and I don't support all of the changes, nor all of the status quo. Why, for example, should alumni leadership positions be restricted to those who have held leadership positions in the past? And why can't important constitutional votes be held over the Interweb -- like alumni elections themselves -- so that one does not have to travel all the way to Hanover in order to participate in the decision-making processes of our school?

The most important of these issues, though, is clearly the implementation of Instant-Runoff Voting. We need our leaders to lead by consensus, not by division. And God knows, we sure don't want people like me winning elections left and right.

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