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Ferndale Residents for Instant Runoff Voting:
Working to Make Election Reform a Priority and a Reality

My article about the importance of election reform and Instant Runoff Voting and our drive to make it a reality in Ferndale and throughout Michigan - as published in the January, 2004 issue of Enter, a Green House publication of Culture and Politics for a Creative Generation.

Ferndale Residents for Instant Runoff Voting:
Working to Make Election Reform a Priority and a Reality


Howard Ditkoff


Ferndale Residents for Instant Runoff Voting (F-IRV)
and Michigan Focus on Reforming Elections (M-FORE)

As published in the January, 2004 issue of Enter, a Green House publication of Culture and Politics for a Creative Generation.

Uniting Around Core Reforms

Each of us - depending upon a combination of our personal history, partisan affiliation, religious identity, and basic worldview – holds certain causes and issues nearest and dearest to our hearts. Some of us are staunch environmentalists, moved nearly to tears by the destruction of the natural world that we see around us. Some are more inspired by the ongoing fight for civil rights, angered and frustrated by the injustices heaped upon minorities, women, and the weakest among us – the poor, the handicapped, or the mentally ill. Still others, sharply stung by the rising inequality between corporate executive excess and the tribulations of everyday workers, are drawn most powerfully to the labor struggle.

Yet, often forgotten in this complex web of emotionally-charged movements are certain endemic problems that, while less immediately heart-rending, present even more fundamental barriers to meaningful progressive change. You may ask, “What could possibly be more important than saving our environment and fighting for social and economic justice?” I am referring to the issue of restoring democracy to our system – in other words, fixing the system itself.

In order for environmentalists, peace activists, fighters for social justice, the labor movement, or any other groups to achieve true reform, we must first ensure that the mechanisms for enacting reform – our voting systems - are sound. In order to ensure that changing minds and hearts can actually translate into better legislation and government policies, we must work to strengthen the levers of democracy itself – especially the levers at the ballot box.

The democracy movement, working to ensure fairness in our campaign and election systems, is a growing one. Armed with a slate of crucial proposals ranging from campaign finance reform to fairer redistricting policies to more inclusive political debates, hundreds of reformers from around the country - as well as overseas - met in Washington, D.C. on November 21-23, 2003 at the Claim Democracy Conference. The conference, sponsored by the Center for Voting and Democracy (, was endorsed by a broad spectrum of organizations, ranging from civil rights groups to women's organizations to groups working directly on voting issues. Its overwhelming success symbolized a potential turning point in reform efforts as groups with disparate and seemingly unrelated missions came together around the recognition that, as expressed by CVD Executive Director Rob Richie, “a rising democratic tide lifts all boats.” And, as the Center's own primary focus elucidates, election reforms such as Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) are central to the lifting of that tide.

“Spoiling” for a Fight: “Wasted” Votes and Non-Majority Rule

Instant Runoff Voting is an election reform that, while not yet a household name, is quickly gaining widespread acceptance nationally, as well as locally. Democratic presidential candidates Governor Howard Dean and Congressman Dennis Kucinich have sung its praises, joining Senator John McCain, who came out in support of IRV in 2002. It has also been endorsed by publications such as U.S.A Today, which exclaimed in a November, 2002 editorial, “There is a better way: instant runoffs.” Closer to home, Ferndale Mayor Robert Porter and Councilman Craig Covey have endorsed Instant Runoff Voting, and in July, 2003 Ferndale's city council voted 5-0 to recommend that Michigan's new voting machines accommodate it.

Why has such attention been lavished upon this heretofore obscure voting method? The answer lies in the 2000 election, where the term “spoiler” became entrenched in the American lexicon. With George W. Bush and Al Gore running neck and neck, millions of probable Gore voters instead poured their support into the idealistic, though ultimately unwinnable campaign of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. Similarly, though to a smaller degree, thousands of likely Bush supporters chose to funnel their votes instead towards the ultra-conservative Patrick Buchanan.

In the end, Nader's vote total of almost 3 million proved greater than the razor-thin margin of victory for Bush, prompting one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential Americans of the 20th Century to be derided as a “spoiler”, having ruined the election for Gore and the Democrats simply by daring to run for office. Notably, had Gore ultimately triumphed, Bush supporters would have had similar charges to level at Buchanan. As a result of the debacle, which may have received even more attention if not for the election's countless other fiascoes, Bush entered the White House with less than majority support, having won only a 48% plurality of votes.

The 2000 presidential election was only the most recent and notable of past “spoiler” and “plurality-winner” incidents. In the 1992 presidential election, for instance, Ross Perot's 18.9% support may have “spoiled” victory for George Bush, Sr., ushering Bill Clinton into office with just 43% support – “hardly a popular mandate” according to Time Magazine. Locally, Green candidate Jerry Kaufman proved a “spoiler” for Democrat Gary Peters, allowing Republican Mike Cox to win Michigan's Attorney General's office in 2002 with only 48.9% support.

With another potential photo-finish presidential election less than a year away, many are exhorting Nader to refrain from running for president again, frightened that he will again “spoil” the race by “stealing” votes from the Democrats. This same fear-driven admonishment is thrust at potential candidates in multi-partisan races throughout America, while voters who prefer any but the most highly-polling candidates are discouraged from “wasting their votes” on a loser. Many critics, realizing the inherent injustice of discouraging citizens from running for any office or voters from expressing their true preferences in the world's beacon of democracy, have correctly identified the “spoiler” problem itself as the appropriate target of reform.

“Delayed” Runoffs: A Costly, Incomplete Solution

In some locales, such as Louisiana and San Francisco, the problem has been dealt with by way of runoff elections. In this case, when no candidate obtains greater than 50% support in the initial election, the top two candidates are pitted against each other in a separate election held several weeks later. In Louisiana's November 5, 2002 Senate election, for example, incumbent Mary Landrieu received only 46% of the vote, with the remaining 54% splitting their votes between eight other candidates. Thus, voters went back to the polls on December 7 to choose once again between Landrieu and her top opponent, Suzanne Haik Terrell. While Landrieu ultimately won this close race, the runoff allowed those who had initially voted for other candidates to offer their preferences, and ensured that Landrieu went to Washington with majority support.

Meanwhile, just weeks ago in San Francisco, voters went back to the polls to vote in a similar runoff between the top two candidates for mayor, Democrat Gavin Newsom and Green Matt Gonzalez. While Newsom, the top vote-getter in the initial election, ultimately triumphed, the runoff made clear that, though Gonzalez received just under 20% support in the initial election, many of those who had split their votes among the remaining seven candidates preferred him to Newsom. Gonzalez still did lose the race, but in the December runoff his 47% support sent a message, and gave a much more accurate assessment of where voters' sentiments in that area truly lie.

While this two-part “delayed” runoff system offers an improvement on plurality elections, it is a costly one. In San Francisco, such additional runoff elections have been estimated to cost the taxpayers over $2 million per runoff. Moreover, separate runoff elections held during the holiday season generate notoriously low voter turnout.

It is for these reasons that in 2002 San Franciscans voted to implement Instant Runoff Voting, a method that obtains the same benefits by eliminating “spoilers”, ensuring majority support, and allowing voters to freely express their will - without the extra cost or hassle of a separate election. It will be used in their city elections beginning in November, 2004. Notably, Louisiana institutes this same system for its overseas absentee ballots, providing an efficient alternative for those who will not be available to return to the polls for a “delayed” runoff.

Instant Runoff Voting: Efficient Majority Rule and Better Campaigns Through Full Voter Choice

Instant Runoff Voting is a full-choice voting method that allows voters to rank their choices on the ballot in order of preference, in contrast with the current system in which they choose only one candidate for each office. Voters label their favorite candidate as 1, their second favorite as 2, and so on, ranking as few or as many choices as they wish. If upon first count, no candidate has greater than 50% of the first-place votes, the candidate with the least first-place votes is eliminated, and his second-choice votes distributed among the remaining candidates – in effect an instant runoff. If a candidate achieves a majority in the second round, he or she is declared the winner. If no majority is achieved, the candidate in last place is again eliminated and the third-choice votes distributed. This process of counting and redistributing votes continues until one candidate reaches greater than 50% support.

This simple change allows ballots to reflect far more information about voter preferences. It also efficiently ensures that winning candidates truly enjoy the support of the majority of voters, rather than simply a plurality. Since it allows voters to freely select the candidates they most want to win, rather than strategically voting against the candidates they like least, Instant Runoff Voting allows them to vote their hopes rather than their fears, and hence may increase voter turnout.

Given an Instant Runoff Voting system in 1992, Perot voters could have further expressed their preference between Bush and Clinton, rather than “wasting” their votes. In 2000, Nader and Buchanan voters could have listed their second and third-choice preferences, allowing us to determine for sure whether these voters preferred Gore or Bush between the remaining candidates. And the refrain “A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush”, which cajoled perhaps millions of would be Nader-voters to compromise their ideals and settle for voting for Gore, would never have been uttered.

As it stands, we are left with a president that 52% of voters did not choose. This circumstance is not a result of the uniquely mishandled 2000 election, but the result of a fundamental flaw in the way we count votes in a plurality system. Had Gore been victorious in the post-election debacle, he too would have had only 48% demonstrated support. For democracy to truly be served, it is crucial that we know where those remaining 4% of voters fall on the question of Gore versus Bush.

With Instant Runoff Voting we would have had that information and, as a result, we would know that our president – whoever it was – had the support and mandate of the majority of voters. Instead, the 2000 election reinforced much of the apathy expressed by voters and non-voters who feel that their vote doesn't really count. For many, it truly didn't.

Instant Runoff Voting not only ensures majority winners, while increasing candidate and voter participation and expression, but it can also help to improve the tone and expand the focus of campaigns. By requiring candidates to compete for the second and third-place votes of their opponents' supporters, it discourages mudslinging and promotes positive campaigns based on issues with broad appeal in the community.

For all of these reasons, Robert's Rules of Order says that IRV “makes possible a more representative result than under a rule that a plurality shall elect” and “…this type of preferential ballot is preferable to an election by plurality…” No wonder that Congress, nearly 20 states, and many cities and university student governments have recently considered or adopted Instant Runoff Voting-related legislation. It is also for these reasons that the Irish elect their president, Australia elects its House of Representatives, and London chooses its mayor using IRV. In fact, even the American Political Science Association itself uses IRV to elect its president!

Ferndale Residents for Instant Runoff Voting (F-IRV) and Michigan Focus on Reforming Elections (M-FORE): Bringing IRV to Ferndale and Beyond

Right here at home, a coalition of citizens, business owners, and organizations from the surrounding community has come together to form a ballot question committee called Ferndale Residents for Instant Runoff Voting (F-IRV). In recent elections, Ferndale has experienced one of the lowest voter turnout rates of any city in Oakland County. In the November, 2003 election, over 80% of registered voters failed to vote. In a 2002 election, over 76% didn't vote. And in one 2000 election, a whopping 92% stayed home from the polls. By bringing all of the benefits of an Instant Runoff Voting system to the city, F-IRV advocates hope to see turnout increase, as well as to provide an example to other cities in the metro Detroit area and around the country of the benefits of a more fair and effective full choice voting system.

In order to achieve our goal, F-IRV is now hard at work educating Ferndale residents and the press, amassing supporters and endorsers, and raising funds. Already, our endorsers include not only Mayor Porter and Councilman Covey, but School Board Member Melissa Hohauser-Thatcher, syndicated columnist Jack Lessenberry, noted peace activist Al Fishman, and groups that include Alliance for Democracy of Metro Detroit, Michigan Election Reform Coalition, and the Public Interest Research Group in Michigan (PIRGIM).

Ultimately, we plan to place a measure on the November, 2004 ballot giving Ferndale's voters the option of using Instant Runoff Voting for mayoral elections in the future. The ballot initiative can be placed on the ballot directly by the city council, or by F-IRV itself after obtaining roughly 850 signatures of resident registered voters.

F-IRV members hope that our movement will spread to other communities in metropolitan Detroit and throughout Michigan. Indeed, activists in Ann Arbor, Clawson, Pleasant Ridge, and Royal Oak, spurred on by the efforts in Ferndale, have already begun to take steps towards forming similar groups in their own cities. F-IRV encourages citizens elsewhere to contact us if they wish to begin the process of promoting Instant Runoff Voting in their town's elections. We hope Ferndale will prove to be the beginning of this drive, not the end.

Similarly, Instant Runoff Voting itself is a beginning, not an end. The deficiencies in our democratic mechanisms run deep, and a slew of reforms will be needed to fully repair the system. Problems such as unfair disenfranchisement, inefficient voting machines and equipment, and the excessive influence of money in our election system certainly must be addressed. We are well aware of that necessity. Indeed, F-IRV represents the first local offshoot of a broader organization, known as Michigan Focus on Reforming Elections (M-FORE), which is committed to just such a long-term, broad reform strategy throughout the state.

Like the Claim Democracy Conference, M-FORE's initial meetings in 2002 brought together citizens from a variety of organizations and several political parties that all recognized the integral role of pro-democracy reforms in any progressive agenda. And like the Center for Voting and Democracy, M-FORE's members quickly concluded that Instant Runoff Voting represented a crucial and attainable first step towards fundamental election reform. We nearly unanimously saw Instant Runoff Voting as an idea whose time has come and a reform that helps make further reforms possible.

So while you are busy admirably defending our air and water, opposing the further erosion of civil rights, and fighting for fair wages and benefits for our workers, take a little time to help repair the levers of democracy itself. It is a goal that will pay dividends in every area of society, including those you care about most. Instant Runoff Voting can be our first step in that process of repair and Ferndale can be an example of progress for metro Detroit, for Michigan, and for the many other cities and states in America that are considering this much-needed reform.

You can learn more about Instant Runoff Voting and Ferndale Residents for Instant Runoff Voting (F-IRV), as well as endorse, volunteer, or donate easily online at F-IRV meets on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month at 7 P.M. at The Greenhouse at 22757 Woodward, Suite 210 in Ferndale. Call 248-336-9241 or email for more information.

Dr. Howard Ditkoff, who ran the successful campaign for Instant Runoff Voting in Ferndale, Michigan, is a personal coach, group/organizational/business consultant and trainer through his company, Emergent Associates, LLC, which shares its unique knowledge, understanding and tools to support health in human systems of all types. Howard helps people discover and develop their deepest talents and potentials, bringing greater satisfaction to all areas of their lives, ranging from health to career to relationships, while helping groups, organizations and businesses of all kinds achieve greater success. For more information, or to contact Howard about setting up a Free Introductory Consultation, visit Emergent Associates, LLC's Website or email him.

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