(Crystal A. Proxmire, Sept. 29, 2013)
In 2004 Ferndale voters made a bold change to the way mayor and council elections are tallied by approving Instant Runoff Voting (IRV).
With IRV voters rank candidates based on preference, and if there is not a clear majority the system factors eliminates the lowest vote-getter and redistributes their second choice votes to determine a community’s overall preference. This counteracts the potential for a less preferred candidate to slip in if other more popular candidates “split” the majority vote. It also helps reduce the pressure for people to chose between “the lesser of two evils,” when there are more than two political parties involved.
It’s a system used in some other countries around the world and in a few US cities including San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley in California and Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota. Other places that have IRV include Ireland, Sri Lanka, Malta and Paupa New Guinea for Presidential races. Australia uses it to elect officials to their House of Representatives and in the UK several cities, including London, hold elections this way.
In Michigan Ferndale is the lone ranger of IRV, so much so that even though 69.75% voted to institute it, the City still has not been able to do so, because the election equipment approved at the State and County level do not allow for it.
“It [IRV] will have no impact because we are still unable to implement the system,” said Ferndale City Clerk Cherilynn Brown. “Our current equipment was provided with Federal funding in 2006 and, as required by the state, the same equipment being used throughout Oakland County – the M100 manufactured by Election Systems & Software. Tabulation equipment must be certified by the state. Therefore, we need software that can run on the M100. When I came on board in June 2007 I began investigating what was available, and there was nothing that worked with the M100.”
Brown added that the Secretary Of State “has recently convened a committee to investigate the feasibility of purchasing new election equipment that would be uniform throughout the state.
“At this point, if software could be found, it might not be fiscally responsible to expend public funds on it without knowing if the M100 will remain in service past 2016,” she said.
The push for IRV in Ferndale has faded since the initial campaign, mainly because there haven’t been any closely contested races with multiple candidates. This year, however, there are four people running for Mayor and the potential for the winner to have less than 50% of the vote is great.
As the current charter says, “The person receiving the highest number of votes for any office shall be deemed to have been duly elected to that office, until such time as voting machine equipment capable of implementing instant run-off voting is available and obtained by the City of Ferndale, and such equipment is approved by the Election Commission, thereafter, for the office of mayor or council, a candidate for office shall be elected by a majority of voters, with each voter designating a first preference and subsequent preferences; such that if no candidate receives a majority of first preferences, then the candidate with the fewest first preferences is eliminated and the second preferences of the voters for that candidate are counted instead with that process being continued until one candidate receives a majority of votes….”
Proponents of IRV want more done to push for its implementation. Stephanie Loveless, then called Tom Ness, was among the leaders of the 2004 campaign. “I sit in frustration that the will of the Ferndale voters has been ignored almost a full decade,” Loveless said.
IRV is a simple, intelligent election reform that advances democracy for everyone, and is good for just about any city not just Ferndale…IRV is helpful any time there are multiple popular candidates that represent similar views, to ensure that the will of the majority is not thwarted by some electoral fluke.” Loveless said that she did not know of any efforts to push for IRV implementation until recently when people on the original campaign began talking about it.
Howard Ditkoff was also a leader in the campaign. “The reason the proposal passed in the first place is that it’s just a far superior voting system to the typical system. Back then we talked to a lot of people, went door-to-door, and the vast majority of people in Ferndale that I talked to were very much in favor of it, which was born out when they voted on it. Now, with this current mayoral campaign, the reason it was passed in the first place is upon Ferndale and it’s a shame it isn’t in place to make it the best election possible. It’s especially ironic because Craig Covey himself endorsed it back during our campaign. People shouldn’t let it wait anymore. They should make sure that next time there is a multi-candidate election in Ferndale, IRV is in place. So hopefully the public will take an interest in seeing this through to implementation,” he said.
When reminded of his involvement with the 2004 initiative, Covey said “We did adopt this system, a decade ago, and tried for a couple of years to get it implemented, but the State resisted us repeatedly and there were cost and software issues. Such a system would be desirous for just this kind of election, with four candidates running for mayor, which is very rare.”
Not everyone is a fan of IRV, however. Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown said “It’s not a very common thing and I think there are probably problems with it or more cities would be doing it.” She was concerned over the cost of the software neede, and shared an example she learned of in Ann Arbor where in 1975 the mayor who won based on IRV had received the second-highest number of first choice votes, but made up for it on second choice votes. “They tried it, but then when it didn’t work for them they got rid of it,” Brown said.
Michigan Election Chair Christopher Thomas confirmed that no other cities in Michigan have IRV, and that “no local jurisdiction has submitted a voting system change request for certification for use in Michigan elections to the Bureau of Elections for review and ultimately to the Board of State Canvassers for certification approval.”
Rob Richie of www.fairvote.org explained the Ann Arbor situation further, stating “Ann Arbor had instant runoff voting for one election in 1975 and there has been some serious talk of bringing it back. The 1975 election was a fascinating one. The Republican incumbent won 49%, the Democrat 40% and a progressive third party won the rest. Ranked choice voting (IRV) vaulted the Democrat to a narrow victory, making him the first African American mayor of the city. Republicans went ballistic and were able to exploit some rocky aspects of implementation (the hand-count and very close result) and Democrats’ lukewarm view of it as they weren’t thrilled with the progressive third party — it was repealed in a very low turnout special election a year later.”
“A great example of a first-use that went well was for mayor of Portland, Maine in 2011. It was a highly competitive election, with 15 candidates and all candidates winning less than 30% of first choices. But it went great,” Richie added.
Kevin Deegan-Krause, a political science professor and local campaign expert, explained the benefits of IRV with a metaphor that many in Ferndale can understand. “Instant Runoff Voting is a simple and elegant way of voting that recognizes voters as more than an on-off switch. All of us, all the time, have in our heads a set of things we like and we know which ones we like more than others. If the W.A.B. is out of its Heffeweizen, I won’t just leave; instead I’ll move to my second preference (the Pilsner) and if that’s out, I’ll move to the third. If I can do this for local beers, I’m certainly able to do this for local city council candidates, and it’s a major step up from the current situation in which I get one choice only.
“With Instant runoff, I know that if my favorite candidate just doesn’t get many votes, then my vote will go to my second favorite and so on. This is especially important in a system like Ferndale’s council elections where there are no party labels and no party primaries. The way we do things now, the outcomes largely depend not on what voters want but on how many similar candidates run for election. If three very similar candidates on one side of an issue run for council and there is only one candidate on the other side, the chances are that the three will split the “for” vote and lose to the “against” candidate, even if there are twice as many total voters “for” than “against.” Instant Runoff Voting is a simple way to fix that. As a teacher at Wayne State, I have course which allows students to test out all sorts of rules for electing candidates. After close study and lots of simulations (and me keeping my mouth shut about which one I prefer), the students always pick some form of Instant Runoff Voting.”
The Nov. 5 election will carry on without the IRV Ferndale voters approved. However, the movement to push for IRV is growing, with some residents hoping to convince the new state board to look at IRV-compatible software and machines as they contemplate a state-wide system. Those who wish to get involved can contact Rob Richie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on the 2004 inititative, visit www.firv.org.