What to cut? How about preliminary elections?
I just read an article in the Somerville Journal in which the aldermen discussed various ideas for trimming the city’s budget. That motivated me to write the following letter to the editor:
Last week’s “What to cut?” article discussed various ideas for trimming spending in the city budget. Here’s a proposal: eliminate the city’s preliminary elections. These elections, held five weeks before the general election on odd-numbered years, see anemically low turnouts and cost the city about $50,000 a pop. That said, preliminary elections do serve a very important purpose: they winnow out potential spoiler candidates, ensuring the ultimate winner has a majority of support. But this function can be accomplished in a single election by simply allowing the voters to rank the candidates on the ballot in order of preference.
If we could pick a first, second, and third choice on the ballot, then the hassle and money of running an entirely separate election would disappear. If a candidate receives a majority of the first choices, that candidate wins. If not, the candidate with the fewest first choices is eliminated and the voters who ranked that candidate first get their vote counted instead toward their second choice, just like a traditional runoff. That process continues until a candidate has a majority.
The system is called Instant Runoff Voting, and it’s quickly being adopted by an increasing number of cities and towns across the country. It is now used for local elections in California, Colorado, Maryland, North Carolina, and Vermont, and a form of it is used right next door to us in Cambridge. Over the next few years, cities in Michigan, Minnesota, and New Mexico, as well as additional cities in California and Colorado, will begin using it, too. This is in addition to innumerable organizations and colleges and universities across the United States that use IRV, including nearby Tufts, MIT, and Harvard.
Implementing IRV is also straightforward. San Francisco had our very same voting machines when it began using IRV four years ago, and the software for tallying the votes is free of charge. Nor would it be the first time Somerville’s adopted a preferential voting system. Somerville actually passed one back in 1949, but the state legislature failed to approve our use of it.
When applied to the Aldermen At Large races, IRV would also eliminate the dreaded “to bullet vote or not” strategic question. Our current voting system turns the At Large ballot into a kind of high-stakes casino game, where voters are left wondering whether to gamble on a “bullet vote” for a single candidate or hedge their bets with a second, third, or fourth choice. This puts the political insiders who are in the best position to know the odds at a distinct advantage over the average voter. With IRV, we could simply rank our candidate in order of preference, without fear that a second or third choice could hurt the chances that the first choice would win. That would be fairer for everyone.
In sum, IRV would make our city elections cheaper, fairer, and faster — three adjectives you rarely hear together when describing a government initiative. We could continue to spend money on costly, low-turnout elections that are unnecessary . . . or we can join other cities and towns in adopting IRV and continue to put Somerville on the map as an innovator and trend-setter. For more information see somervilleirv.org.
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