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(HOST) This March, voters in Burlington will test-drive their new Instant Runoff Voting system. Commentator Philip Baruth predicts that there will be some early confusion — and then Burlington voters will move on. But campaign strategists, unfortunately, will never recover.

(BARUTH) When voters go to the polls in Burlington on March 7, they’ll find that the world has changed — for better or for worse, no one can say yet. Their ballot will now allow them to rank the available candidates in order of preference — something called *Instant Runoff Voting. If no candidate picks up fifty percent of the vote, then the lowest vote-getter is eliminated. Voters who preferred the low vote-getter then have their second-choices tallied, until someone cracks the majority mark.

The last time Burlington made such a significant change it was 1892, and the change involved using ballots printed by the government. Before that time, candidates and parties printed their own ballots, featuring just their own names; you could even make up your own at home.

But after 1892, you received a ballot printed by the State, featuring the names of all the qualified candidates. And now you had to pick up a pencil and check boxes.

Not surprisingly, there was confusion. And long lines to get the new government ballots, and then longer lines to get into a voting booth to mark your ballot. But the legislature increased the number of voting booths towns were required to provide, and the alien became the norm.

It will be the same with IRV: voters will adjust, after a bit of early confusion. And, make no mistake, there will be some confusion. The City Clerk’s office sent out a mailing this past week, showing a sample IRV ballot; and, while I’m not proud to admit it, it took me a minute to figure it out, even though I’ve been writing about Instant Runoff for more than a year.

The new form may not be the infamous Palm Beach Butterfly Ballot, but it is counterintuitive at this point. Voters will get over it, though, eventually.

But there’s one class of people who will never, ever come to terms with the change: campaign strategists. Because IRV makes part of their job all but impossible. Let’s say that there are three candidates, one on the right, one on the left, and one in the center. Ordinarily you’d advise your candidate to appeal to his core voters — and a slice of the voters next to that core on the ideological spectrum.

So, if you’re advising a Republican, usually you try to pitch your message to die-hard Republicans, as well as right-leaning Democrats. But under IRV, it may well turn out to be far-left voters that decide the second round of the election. In which case, you wish that you had tuned your message more broadly, but it’s just too late at that point. Since you don’t know which candidate will be eliminated — and therefore which constituency will decide the election — it’s almost impossible to fine-tune a strategy through even two rounds of IRV, let alone three or four.

Confused now? I know: that’s the nature of the beast.

Try this analogy. Imagine IRV as a game of Scrabble. The three candidates play the first round, making words, using strategy, scoring points. At the end of the round, the candidate with the lowest score is eliminated. Now, without moving the tiles at all, the game switches from English to Spanish. And you recalculate only those letter combinations that happen to form Spanish words.

Or it could be Portuguese, or conceivably Serbo-Croatian. The only thing you can be certain of is that there’s just no way to know for sure.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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