Better runoff in an instant

Published as an Op-Ed in the Boston Herald:

Boston taxpayers, take heed: You just paid $29 per ballot to elect a city councilor. You probably could’ve used that extra money for a half-tank of gas, or a night out at your favorite restaurant. Instead, you spent an estimated $83,000 so that 7 percent (2,886) of District 7’s registered voters could brave the cold last Tuesday to elect Chuck Turner’s successor. At that price, those must have been some pretty nice ballots.

Tito Jackson won the race in a landslide, drawing 1,943 votes (67 percent) against five opponents. But Jackson did not win the office — not yet. He only topped the field in the preliminary election. Voters still have to return for the general election March 15 to vote for one of the two front-runners. This would make sense, except that the second-place “front-runner,” Cornell Mills, received only 271 votes (9 percent). So, taxpayers will plunk down another $83,000 for a second election.

Welcome to the electoral antique road show, where a 19th-century paradigm trumps 21st-century common sense. As thin as city budgets have been in the past two years, we continue to pay double the tab for primitive runoff election procedures. Although runoff elections are important to ensure a candidate wins by a 50 percent majority vote, holding two elections when the vote gap between the top two candidates is 58 percent is simply wasteful. It is the electoral equivalent to the Alaskan Bridge to Nowhere.

There is a way to run our elections more intelligently. The District 7 example serves as the perfect opportunity to upgrade our electoral system to Instant Runoff Voting (also known as Ranked Choice Voting), which combines the preliminary and general into a single high-stakes election. Instant Runoff Voting uses a “smart ballot” that lets voters rank all of the candidates by number — 1, 2, 3 and so on. The vote tabulation is conducted like a series of runoff elections, only in a single sitting. In a citywide Instant Runoff election, Boston would save up to $750,000, and busy voters won’t have to divide their time and attention between two separate visits to the polls. In short, it’s a win-win: higher voter turnout at half the cost.

Cambridge has been using a variant of Instant Runoff Voting since 1941. Minneapolis, Oakland and San Francisco have adopted a similar system within the past decade, and Berkeley will have its first IRV election next year. Dozens of modern democracies around the world use IRV variants, including the United Kingdom, Canada and Ireland. Australia, for instance, has elected its Parliament using IRV for the last eight decades.

Boston has better ways to spend our tax dollars than on archaic exercises in electoral futility. State Rep. Alice Wolf (D-Cambridge) has filed a bill that would allow Massachusetts cities and towns to try out Instant Runoff Voting for a four-year term, and if they like it, to use it permanently. Unless, of course, we think $29 per ballot is a good deal.

Adam Friedman is an executive board member of Citizens for Voter Choice, an organization that advocates for ranked-choice voting.