At the end of January, New Paltz village trustees voted to ask for the right to allow people to vote differently in village elections. In a resolution passed January 25, trustees are seeking permission from state legislators to try out instant-runoff voting, under which voters rank candidates in order of preference. Neither state law nor most available voting machines make this voting variation possible, hence the resolution requesting it.
Many people in New Paltz are unfamiliar with alternative voting schemes, or even that the one they are most familiar with has a name: first-past-the-post. That’s the system in which the candidate with the most votes wins, which on its face might appear to be the essence of democracy. However, it has shortcomings which are intended to be addressed using instant-runoff voting (IRV) or other ranked-choice systems. In an IRV election, a voter would instead of selecting his or her preferred candidate, list them in order of preference. If none of the candidates receive a majority, the lowest vote-getter is eliminated, and the second-choice candidate selected by the eliminated candidate’s supporters gets that vote instead. The process continues until a candidate received a majority.
Some of the issues that IRV is intended to resolve don’t exist on a village level. One of these is the fact that turnout is much lower for votes that don’t take place on Election Day, such as for primaries and runoff elections, which could be eliminated in such a system. There are research findings which indicate that minority and female candidates are disproportionately impacted by lower turnout. Supporters also believe it tamps down on negative campaigning, because voters will rank the negative candidate lower as a consequence.
Matthew Williams thinks it would make voting in village elections easier. “I believe it would change democracy for the better. I had wished for it during the last mayoral election, as I was concerned the two candidates who ultimately got a majority of the votes were going to split a majority,” allowing a less-popular candidate to win. “IRV would have likely eliminated that concern.”
Another issue with first-past-the-post is tactical voting, choosing a candidate not based on qualifications, but likelihood of winning. Ranking all candidates allows voters to shift their allegiance easily should that third-party candidate not make the cut in the first round.
“IRV, if implemented nationally, would give voters the opportunity to send a message to the two major parties about their dissatisfaction with their candidates without subjecting the nation to elected officials who lose the popular vote,” said Kitty Brown. “For example, voters could have ranked Ralph Nader first and Al Gore second, or Gary Johnson first and Hillary Clinton second. This would replace the electoral college with a system that fairly represents the electorate. If starting with the village is a step towards national electoral reform, I’m all for it.”
Jason West has been a supporter for many years, even mentioning it in a book he wrote. “It’s a solid solution to a very real problem. There are other voting systems as well, and our first-past-the-post system only elects those with the most votes, not necessarily the candidate with majority support. Most industrial democracies use some form of IRV or proportional representation to elect their governments for good reason.”
Not everyone is enchanted with IRV or other alternative methods of voting. Even though he supported the village board resolution, Mayor Tim Rogers expressed leeriness of any system that voters might find confusing, as it might actually reduce turnout. While IRV supporters will say that the scheme makes intuitive sense once one is sitting with the ballot, they often struggle to explain it in a way that demonstrates this.
Patty Salone hadn’t heard the term before, but liked it. “Once I read a description, I realized that I do know what it is, but the name did not bring an immediate recall. I like the idea of being able to vote by ranking candidates, because it would enable me to truly vote for the candidate of my choice, rather than for one of the major parties.”
Brendan McLaughlin, one of the people who brought the issue before village trustees, completely dismissed the notion that IRV is too complicated. “I think it actually would increase participation and engagement and push people past the Republican/Democrat dichotomy (which is ridiculous in local elections in the first place). Ranking your preferences is something children do in a daily basis, if an adult can’t rank order politicians, I think they probably wouldn’t have voted in the first place.” It should be noted that village elections are nonpartisan.
There’s also an argument that first-past-the-post, because it favors majorities, promotes a more stable government.
“What’s the purpose?” asked Ray Lunati. “If a single seat is being sought, just have a regular election. Seems like a lot of wasted time.”
Adele Ruger wasn’t sure there is a problem with the candidate who receives the most votes winning, but Margaret Human is sure that there is, particularly “when multiple candidates earn support from like-minded voters.” As Human explained it, two similar candidates might together represent a majority of votes, but because voters split between them a third candidate might win when plurality, not majority, is all that’s required. Human’s concerns were evident in the vote-shaming tactics aimed at supporters of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein during the last presidential campaign.
The theoretical discussions about alternative voting schemes are bolstered by experiments around the country, but unless it’s implemented at scale much of the debate will remain intellectual. That’s the purpose of seeking a trial run in the village, in fact: the more local lawmakers who ask for this right, the more like state legislators will pass that request into law. If it becomes common in these small elections, state and federal votes may follow, as proponent Alice Andrews explained.
“While it will be great for us locally to have,” Andrews said, “it also sends a message that a ranked-choice voting movement is growing, which will likely accelerate the process countrywide.”