Early this week (11/27) I filed a formal objection to including the Instant Runoff Voting for Urbana referendum on the February 2008 primary election ballot. For those who came in late on this issue, I’d like to share my reasons for doing this.
First, a disclaimer. I filed the objection on my own behalf, not as Vice-Chair of the Champaign County Democratic Party, and not at the request of the party or in collaboration with any official affected by the referendum. I object because I believe that IRV is a bad idea for progressive government in my home town. In my opinion, the petition itself and the concept behind it are flawed for technical, mathematical, and political reasons.
Technically, the referendum contained in the IRV for Urbana Petition is not a municipal referendum submitted to the voters for their approval. The News-Gazette reports that the proponents intend it to be a binding referendum, but it has about half the signatures required for such an initiative under 10 ILCS 5/28-7. It may not be an advisory referendum either, since it orders Urbana to enact, repeal, or amend such unspecified ordinances and statutes as required to implement a concept described in the petition. In any case, it is unclear about how it affects primary elections. Does it eliminate them, subject them to IRV, or leave them untouched? These ambiguities prevent voters from making an informed decision on the matter, so the petitions are void and the proposed referendum should not appear on the February ballot. (Since you ask, I think it does not affect primaries.)
Mathematically, the proponents are trying to achieve the impossible. IRV voting is, they claim, eminently more fair and democratic than the traditional “plurality” method. I disagree. Amateurs and experts tried for a hundred years to perfect a satisfactory voting methodology for elections involving more than two candidates. Several ingenious schemes were devised, but all were wanting in some respect. That is, every method proposed could produce results that would violate one of the fundamental principles of “fair elections”. Then, halfway through the 20th century, a young mathematician turned economist effectively ended the hunt by proving (Arrow’s Theorem) that an eminently satisfactory multi-candidate voting methodology does not exist. Since we currently employ a very democratic (understood by all voters) system whose effects and strategies are clear and tolerable, I suggest below that progressives in Urbana continue to make good use of the system we already have. The plurality method can be described as: “Vote for the candidate of your choice. Whoever gets the most votes wins”. Sometimes unsatisfactory? Perhaps, but Arrow showed that all methods are. Simple? Transparent? Easily verified? Universally understood? Absolutely.
Finally, at the practical political level, IRV will accomplish nothing for progressive government in Urbana. Our city has become a model of modern good government, a cosmopolitan oasis in central Illinois. We didn’t need to “fix” the vote-counting process to get this done. We built this city the old-fashioned way, with important issues, excellent candidates, generous donors, scores of organized, hard-working activists, and a progressive local Democratic party. Why should we now dismantle the very system that has worked so well for Urbana?
Change for its own sake is often a waste of resources, and it can sometimes be counter-productive. IRV proponents have the burden of proof to demonstrate that implementing a novel election scheme will produce significantly better results for Urbana voters without exposing us to unacceptable downside risks. I believe they have failed to meet that burden, and I cannot support IRV for Urbana.