Short Relief: The dangers of using run-off voting to elect Portland's mayor
At its January 28th meeting, Portland’s Charter Commission voted 9-1 to let Portland residents consider revising the City Charter to employ Instant Runoff Voting, also called Rank Choice Voting, for mayor.
With IRV, voters rank each candidate in order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes, then the candidate with the least number of first-choice votes is eliminated. That candidate’s supporters’ second-choice votes are distributed to the remaining candidates. The process continues until one candidate has a majority of votes of varying degrees of preference.
As far as I can tell, the Commission did not consider and recommend how to report election results under IRV, which could make it difficult for observers to analyze where the eventual winner’s majority came from.
The Commission is proposing IRV in conjunction with proposals to revise the charter from a city manager-influenced government to a stronger mayor.
In support of their proposal, Commissioners argued that IRV is more fair and democratic than traditional voting. They argued that IRV allows voters to realize their full potential and will make voters happier.
IRV does appear to increase the apparent legitimacy of the mayor by ensuring that nobody gets the position without winning a majority of votes, even if some of those votes are second-choice, or lower, votes.
Commissioners argued that if the city is going to have a strong mayor, that mayor should have the support of a majority of the electorate.
The effect of IRV could be that a strong mayor, elected with at least 50% of the votes, can claim that he or she has the support of a majority of the people of Portland.
The Commission thinks all of this would be an improvement over the current mayor selection, which is in the hands of city councilors and largely a ceremonial position. The problem with the current structure has been described as a lack of leadership or vision with respect to major initiatives.
My concern is that IRV is confusing, difficult to administer, vulnerable to abuse and may foster imperiousness instead of collegiality.
IRV presumes that voters are capable of ranking candidates in order of preference and that they will be able to accurately convey that ranking at the polls.
I have worked many elections during which traditional voting was employed and voters had only to indicate their first choice from among several alternatives. There were always a significant number of spoiled ballots and ballots that required interpreting voter intent.
Those problems will only be compounded by IRV.
Moreover, IRV’s goal of maximizing the legitimacy of the electorate may be thwarted by bullet voting, casting only one vote when several are expected.
Take, for example, a hypothetical election in which the electorate is one-third Republican, one-third Democratic and one-third Green Independent. If people voted rationally, you would expect the Democratic candidate to win because both the Republican and Green second-choice votes would go to the Democrat, whose positions would be closer to those on the other end of the ideological spectrum.
However, if Green voters bullet vote and cast their first choice vote for the Green candidate and do not cast any second or third choice votes, their candidate is likely to win because no other candidates will get the benefit of Green voters’ second- and third-choice votes, while the Green candidate will get the benefit of some Democratic and maybe even some Republican second- and third-choice votes.
Beyond this, the risk of IRV may be that it will force voters to compromise while misleading their elected officials into believing that they have more of a mandate than they do. Officials who overestimate their mandate may be less willing to compromise.
On the other hand, maybe that’s what you want in a strong mayor.