In Austin, Texas, two important changes in voting for Austin City Council members were implemented in November 2014. First, Austin moved from an at-large-by-place election to a single-member district election for its council members, and at the same time, increased the council from six members and a mayor to ten council members and a mayor. Second, the election date was moved from the first Saturday in May to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, which coincides with the general election to elect national, state, and county officials.
In the first election under this system, seventy candidates were competing in the ten single-member districts. In the election on November 4, 2014, only two of the ten council candidates won a majority of the votes in the district; so eight districts were scheduled to hold runoff elections between the two highest vote getters on December 16, 2014. Subsequently, one candidate withdrew, leaving seven districts to conduct runoff elections.
Is there a better method of deciding elections than with a runoff? One method of eliminating the necessity of a runoff election would be to abandon the majority vote requirement and institute a plurality vote requirement. That is, the candidate with the largest number of votes in the election wins, regardless of whether that is a majority or not. The problem with this system is, of course, that the winner may have garnered a small percentage of the vote. For example, in Austin’s District 8, the candidate who received the largest number of votes won only 26.38 percent of the vote, leading the candidate with the second highest vote total by only 179 votes out of 21,538 votes cast in the district. Other districts had similar results. Had the plurality system been in place, the District 8 candidate who was not the first choice of nearly 74 percent of the voters would have won the council seat in the district. This does not seem right.
So, the question remains: Is there a better method of deciding elections without a runoff? The answer involves ranked vote choice (RVC) or instant runoff voting (IRV), which mean essentially the same thing. Here’s how the system works: each voter ranks the candidates for the office according to his/her first, second, and third choice. When the votes are tallied, if one candidate receives a majority of the first- choice votes, that candidate is elected. However, if no candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes, then the candidate who received the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and the voters who selected that candidate as their first choice have their second-choice votes assigned to one of the remaining candidates. If, as a result of those second-choice votes, one of the candidates now has a majority of votes, the candidate is elected. However, if no candidate still has a majority of the votes, then the remaining candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and his/her second-place votes are assigned to one of the remaining candidates. This process is repeated until one candidate receives a majority of the votes in the contest.
The RVC or IRV system is used in several cities in the United States to conduct their mayoral and/or city council elections. Examples include Berkeley, California; Oakland, California; Portland, Maine; San Francisco, California; San Leandro, California; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Telluride, Colorado.
The advantages of the RVC or IRV system include lower election costs by eliminating runoff elections, higher voter turnout, and, according to Fair Vote, RVC or IRV:
- Gives voters the option to rank as many or as few candidates as they wish without fear that ranking less favored candidates will harm the chances of their most preferred candidate.
- Empowers voters with more meaningful choice.
- Minimizes strategic voting.
- Creates a positive atmosphere where candidates campaign to the voters rather than against each other.
Source: Fair Vote: The Center for Voting and Democracy, http://www.fairvote.org/reforms/instant-runoff-voting/
Thus, Austin should amend its charter to substitute instant runoff voting for the current runoff election system.