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Reforming Prince George's Special Elections

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  • Cvderic@aol.com
    I thought you might be interested in this piece I wrote about reforming special elections in Prince George s County. It appeared in today s Prince George s
    Message 1 of 1 , May 7, 2002
      I thought you might be interested in this piece I wrote about reforming
      special elections in Prince George's County. It appeared in today's Prince
      George's Journal.



      Prince George's Journal
      May 7, 2002

      Instant runoffs could reform costly special elections
      By ERIC C. OLSON

      Voters in Prince George's County Council District 8 must go to the polls
      twice within the month in primary and general elections to fill the seat of
      ``Ike" Gourdine, just as District 1 voters made two recent trips to the polls
      to elect Councilman Tom Dernoga after ``Mike" Maloney's death.

      It is only appropriate that Prince George's County holds special
      elections to fill council vacancies. Both Maloney and Gourdine were ardent
      believers in trusting voters to pick their representatives.

      Two-round special elections, however, present a number of problems that
      deserve scrutiny. Among other issues, consider the following:

      Low turnout: Often, special elections result in low voter turnout,
      particularly in the decisive, second election. In the recent District 1
      special election, turnout was under 16 percent. ``Voter fatigue" and taking
      time out of schedules twice within a few short weeks both contribute to low
      turnout. In District 1, the special primary came the week before Christmas;
      in District 8, the second round will be near Memorial Day. No matter what
      time of year a vacancy occurs, finding two dates for each special election is

      Disrupts our school system: The law states that public buildings must be
      available for elections. Because of these elections, there has been
      considerable turmoil within schools and a disruption of the school calendar.
      Schools closed during the December primary to fill Maloney's District 1 seat,
      but they chose not to lose a school day for the January election. In District
      8, schools remained open for the April 23 primary and will be open for the
      special general election on May 21. In District 1, 14 schools were used as
      polling places during the two elections, while in District 8, that number is
      19 schools. That means disruption for students, teachers and administrators
      both during the two elections, but also in preparing for the event. Further,
      it means outsiders in the schools twice in a month, and more traffic on
      school grounds around thousands of children.

      Inefficient: Holding two special elections - a primary and a runoff - to fill
      a seat is redundant and inefficient when only one is necessary to produce the
      same result. Particularly to fill vacancies, two election rounds are a hassle
      for voters, candidates and election administrators. Citizens are subjected to
      an additional month of politicking, phone calls, political mail and partisan
      appeals; candidates and their supporters must raise more special interest
      campaign money in a hurry; and election officials lose a month from their
      normal duties.

      Costly: There is, of course, a monetary cost to Prince George's citizens for
      holding a second election round - paying poll workers, printing voter
      education materials and the like. The city of San Francisco estimated it
      would save $2 million by eliminating one election round. In a time when
      Prince George's schools seek greater funding, we can ill-afford to waste
      money on a superfluous second round of election.

      Seemingly, there is logic to two-round, primary and general special
      elections: to prevent one-round first-place-wins-all results, where a
      fragment of the vote could result in a low plurality winner. France, for
      example, could have experienced a disastrous result if April's election were
      only one round and if the right-wing candidate, Jean Marie Le Pen received
      only a few percentage points more - he could have become President with
      barely over 19 percent of the vote in one round.

      Thankfully, there is a more efficient election method that simulates
      election rounds, even though voters only need to come to the polls once.
      Instant runoff voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of
      preference. If no candidate wins a majority of first-choice votes, the
      candidates with the least support are eliminated sequentially, and their
      supporters' runoff choices are tallied as they would be in a two-round
      election. This continues until a majority winner emerges.

      Used for major elections in Ireland, Australia and London, among other
      places, instant runoff voting is quickly earning support in the United
      States. On March 5, San Francisco voters passed a referendum to adopt instant
      runoff voting for citywide elections. Right here in Prince George's County
      this spring, the University of Maryland's student government adopted this
      voting method for their elections. Last year, Robert Hertzberg (D), speaker
      of the California State Assembly, introduced legislation to implement instant
      runoff voting for filling congressional and legislative vacancies. In
      Vermont, 52 of 55 towns recommended that the state should adopt instant
      runoffs for statewide elections, and supporters there include Gov. Howard
      Dean (D), Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz (D), the League of Women
      Voters, and Common Cause. The Utah Republican Party uses instant runoff
      voting to select their candidates, and Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D)
      introduced legislation in Congress to encourage instant runoffs for
      presidential elections.

      As the Prince George's County Council considers reform of the County
      Charter, they should resolve the problem of holding too many costly elections
      on one hand, while ensuring that officials are democratically elected by a
      majority on the other hand. Our County Council would be wise to consider and
      adopt instant runoff voting, especially in special elections with large
      fields of candidates.


      Eric C. Olson is deputy director of the Center for Voting and Democracy
      www.fairvote.org, a national nonprofit organization based in Takoma Park, and
      is a member of the College Park City Council.
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