Greens Push Voting Reform

By:JACK LESSENBERRY , Special to The Oakland Press 05/18/2003
May 18, 2003

Traditionally, while minor political parties haven't had much success
winning elections in America, they sometimes have pushed ideas, from votes
for women to Social Security, that have had an enormous impact.
Michigan's tiny Green Party may be the latest on that path. As of now,
the Greens probably couldn't win an election for dogcatcher on a liberal
campus. But they have an intriguing idea to make elections more
representative and more interesting - if they can just get other people to
buy into it.

They call it Instant Runoff Voting - IRV for short. Here's how it
would work: Voters would have the option of not just pulling the lever for
one candidate, but ranking them in order of preference. If somebody won an
overall majority, these "second-place" votes wouldn't be needed or counted.
But if nobody has a majority, then the second-place votes would be
added in to the mix. In multi-candidate elections, even third and fourth
place votes might be needed.

"Eventually, the winner would be guaranteed majority support, and we
would have a much more accurate and precise reflection of the voters'
desires," said Tom Ness, who runs a sort of combination lecture hall and
salon called the Green House in Ferndale, an older Detroit suburb of 22,000

Accordingly, he's been starting in his own back yard, lobbying members
of Ferndale's elected and appointed city government.
"Some of the council are definitely interested," said Tom Barwin,
Ferndale city manager. "But I'm not quite sure that it would be legal."
That, state officials say, is a complex question.

Kelly Chesney, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of State, said,
after some research, state election experts advise that Ferndale would need
to change its charter to allow IRV.
"And then they'd have to run it by the (Michigan) attorney general for
a ruling on its legality," he added.

If that were to happen, Ferndale wouldn't be alone. San Francisco now
uses a version of IRV to elect a mayor. Many European countries use some
form of IRV or proportional voting, as in Germany, where voters cast one
ballot for a candidate in federal elections and a second vote for a
political party.

Though the advantages may be obvious, some fear instant runoff voting
could have a big downside.
"We oppose it," said Greg McNeilly, executive director of the Michigan
Republican Party. He said he fears voters would find IRV so complex and
confusing that the net effect would be to further depress voter turnout.
That might be true, and many of those who do vote now often skip
complex ballot proposals. But Republicans may have another reason to fear
IRV. There is little doubt that if IRV had been in effect three years ago,
Al Gore would be president today.

Greens like IRV because they believe it would give them more clout.
Polls showed Ralph Nader would have gotten twice as many votes if it hadn't
been for fears that supporting him would elect George Bush, something that
occurred anyway. The same fear has hurt conservative third-party candidates
like Pat Buchanan.

IRV would, Ness believes, allow more viewpoints and ideas to be heard.
It also might give his Greens some horse-trading power with Democrats.
But that seems a long way off. Democrats, who might have the most to
gain, aren't excited. Spokesman Jason Moon says they don't have a position
on IRV.

"We instead would like to focus on election matters such as same-day
registration, open absentee voting and enabling college students to vote
near their campuses," he said.

That's not good enough for the Greens, and their quest does have a
certain urgency. The state is about to buy a lot of new voting equipment,
thanks to HAVA - the Help America Vote Act - passed by Congress in the wake
of the Florida debacle.

Michigan will get something like $48 million, state officials said,
and is required to replace outdated voting equipment, such as old mechanical
voting machines and Florida-style punch card ballots still used in hundreds
of precincts.

Greens belatedly discovered this and are urging supporters of runoff
voting to write to officials to urge equipment be purchased that will permit
IRV, if and when a community wants to try it. They haven't much time,
though: May 27 is cutoff day for public comment. "Write to Jeanette Sawyer,
Bureau of Elections, 208 North Capitol, Lansing, MI 48933," Ness rattles
off, apparently from memory.

Whatever happens, he intends to keep working for IRV, figuring the
more an increasingly diverse electorate learns about it, the more attractive
it will seem.
Interestingly, according to the Secretary of State, Michigan could
adopt IRV for statewide elections by a simple vote of the legislature,
rather than a constitutional amendment. That may not happen soon ... but you
never know.

(Jack Lessenberry is a member of the Wayne State University journalism
faculty and a consultant to The Oakland Press.)
©The Oakland Press 2003