Portland's Electoral Experiment
The Portland Charter Commission is bringing a variety of changes to municipal government and elections to the ballot in November. One of the most talked about has been the proposal to institute a system of instant-runoff voting for mayor and other municipal offices.
In an instant-runoff election, voters rank the candidates by preference, and if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and their voters' second choices are taken into account. This process continues until one candidate wins a majority. The system is meant to make elections more fair and representative and is used in a small smattering of jurisdictions across the country and the world.
The Portland Press Herald called the idea “worth trying” (I'd link to the article, but it's behind their new paywall). The Times Record said it was “worth a look.” Al Diamon is suspicious, as always, but seems willing to give it a shot.
I agree with their assessments, but my endorsement should carry a bit more weight than any old newspaper (or multi-platform content provider) because I've actually run in an instant-runoff election.
In Canada, where I went to college (or “university,” as the Canadians call it), student union elections are a serious thing. My school's union has a charter from the province dating back to the 1860s, revenues in the millions of dollars (or “loonies”), and runs a variety of businesses and services including bars, restaurants, a copy shop, and a self-financed health insurance plan (to pay for the few things their awesome universal health care system doesn't cover). Executives of the union are paid a full-time salary and are elected by the school's 16,000 students (that's about the size of a Portland municipal ward) each year using instant-runoff voting. I ran twice, once for VP and once for President, and won both times.
In my experience, the instant-runoff system encouraged more people to run, campaigns focused on broad, important issues rather than personal attacks, and there was greater turnout. When only two candidates ran for a spot and the first-past-the-post system was back in effect, things were noticeably different and not for the better.
I'm not a woman, minority, or member of another traditionally marginalized group, but I can certainly see how an IRV system might also be more welcoming to these candidates.
I also found that people had no trouble figuring out how to rank candidates when voting using IRV, even if they were used to casting a one-vote ballot in other elections. The system is pretty self-explanatory.
It's certainly simpler than other democratic reforms that the city could be considering. It's less time-consuming than the sequential runoffs used in many places in the United States, less confusing than rated voting methods, and more in tune with the Maine tradition of independence than party list-based proportional representation. (Apologies, talking about school has brought out my inner Poli Sci major.)
Portland should try this system. If it doesn't work, they should try something else, equally bold. Our democratic systems have been evolving since the birth of our country through exactly this kind of experimentation and we should continue to try to make our elections fairer and our government more responsive.