Paul Jacob

A famous tyrant once quipped, "It's not who votes that counts, but who counts the votes." Yet it turns out that democracy suffers from other technical problems.

How the votes are counted, that matters too.

In Pierce County, Washington, a new voting system came online for the last election: Ranked Choice Voting or (as it is usually called) Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). And a number of politicians aren't happy about it. Challengers appear to have a better chance in the system, with a smaller percentage of big spenders winning under IRV. So the Pierce County Council has put the new system up for repeal on this November's ballot.

The chief sin of the system can't be that incumbents don't like it, of course. Nor can it be that poorer funded challengers like it a lot (as appears to be the case). The fact that a dark horse got in as Assessor-Treasurer and asked the state attorney and auditor to look into the county, that can't officially matter, either. So, in searching about for a reason to nix the new system, politicians say it is "too complicated."

And if you try to explain it from front end to back end in one sentence, you do end up with quite a long sentence.

So maybe we should explain it in parts.

Front end: Voters rank their top three candidates from all those running.

Hey, if we can rank our favorite pop songs, and Dave Letterman can go all the way up to ten every night for his best or worst this or that ("Top Ten Reasons to Think Politicians Are In It for Themselves" -- hint, hint, eh, Letterman?), then this isn't too complicated.

I usually know who my favorite candidates are, in strong order of preference.

The problem I have is probably the problem you have: My preferences might not have a shot at winning. And if I voted my true preference, I might never, ever vote for a winner. My vote would never seem to count.

Let's say we could choose our next president from any of the previous presidents, revived and ready to lead. If I got to choose any president from our nation's past, and vote, and picked my favorite (say, Grover Cleveland?) that would be a "wasted vote" under normal ballots. Almost no one else likes ol' Grover. My second favorite, Tom Jefferson, also has too few partisans. Another wasted vote.

But if I voted for my third favorite, there's a chance that I might vote for a winner. So I cast a vote for George Washington, instead.

George might have a chance of beating Abe Lincoln -- lots o' folks' favorite -- who I'm afraid trails my Top Three as well as Cool Cal Coolidge and a few others.

Because of this second-guessing of who others likely support, people "falsify their preferences" in voting all the time. And, in the process, they may vote for a candidate they don't even like, against their preferred candidate, to prevent a victory by someone further down the bozo list.

IRV is different.

You list your Top Three, as in the Pierce County method. If you vote for Grover first, and only two other history buffs did likewise -- and here we get to the back end -- your ballot would be taken off the Grover stack, at the first runoff count, and put in the stack of your second pick. And so on until the counts show a true majority winner.

What this re-counting does is mimic a runoff, allowing the primary and general elections to be fused into one. The runoff election is made "instant" by the recounting of ballots according to the listed preferences of voters.

The whole thing should save money.

Surprise, surprise, Pierce County politicians say it cost too much. But they are only looking at having to print two sets of ballots, one for IRV, the other for non-IRV voting. Wouldn't you know it, it turns out that most ballots in most districts could be combined. They just weren't last time out. Ascribe that to bureaucratic inertia.

It's not a perfect system, but it's almost certainly better than the simple first-past-the-post system we use now.

For cynical watchers of politics, the Pierce County effort is age-old comedy, as perennial as tax increases and partying with lobbyists. For us more earnest folk, who just want government to proceed fairly and honestly, it's the age-old, sad, sad story: The insiders trying to keep out the outsiders.

As if to confirm the fact, look at what else Pierce County officials are up to . . .

The drum roll needn't be extended long. You no doubt guessed it. Pierce County insiders want to get rid of their term limits. Well, they officially moved to extend their terms, so they can serve longer. Currently they get two consecutive four-year terms, eight years; they want three terms, for a total of twelve years. In November, along with the IRV referendum, voters will get to decide if, in their county, eight is enough.

The currently two-termed politicians offer up the standard arguments. They emphasize that they are handicapped when jockeying with more experienced, longer-termed competitors from other counties on the regional boards that divvy out the loot from the state and the feds.

At this point, stifle your yawns and (if in Pierce County) go to the polls to vote against this routine power grab (one not unfamiliar to listeners and readers of my Common Sense radio show/podcast/daily email). Pierce County citizens don't seem bothered about seniority on regional boards. They just want their pols out of office before the pols become as corrupt as is traditional in the county.

If the overwhelming attitude of political insiders is to oppose IRV, just like they oppose term limits, maybe the reform deserves more than a cursory look. Pierce County residents should keep the system . . . and Washington state voters might consider extending it to the whole state.

Fly it up the proverbial flagpole. Give it some time. Then we can all examine this experiment in democracy, and come to some decent conclusions.


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.