Instant-Runoff Voting Would Be Better Alternative to Open Primary for California Voters

Proposition 14 won't cure state's political or fiscal problems

To hear proponents of Proposition 14, you would think that implementing an open primary in California would provide greater choice to voters, fix the state’s budget mess, and bring peace and harmony to Sacramento (and the world at large). Sadly, this “reform” will not improve the state’s electoral system-much less its budget problems-and will only disenfranchise more voters by reducing their choices and their freedom of association with the political party of their choice. The good news is that better electoral and budgetary reforms are out there, and Californians should embrace them before the state gets mired even deeper in its current morass.

Under an open, or “top-two,” primary, all candidates appear on the same primary ballot. Each voter makes his or her selection and the top two vote getters advance to the general election. Not only does this infringe upon private political organizations’ rights to determine their own nominees, it also makes it nearly impossible for minor party candidates to make it onto the general election ballot and leaves voters who are not supporters of the top two candidates with no real choice or incentive to participate in the general election. Even worse, according to the Center for Governmental Studies, more than one-third of districts would likely see two candidates from the same party square off against each other during the general election in this system. Thus, all six qualified political parties-Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, Green, American Independent, and Peace and Freedom-have come out against the measure.

A better alternative to the open primary would be a switch to an instant-runoff voting (IRV) system. Under an IRV system, also known as “alternative vote” or “preference voting,” voters rank each of the candidates on the ballot: “1” for the voter’s first choice, “2” for the second choice, and so on. If no candidate receives a majority of “first-place” votes, the candidate with the least amount of votes is eliminated. That candidate’s votes are then redistributed according to voters’ preferences (whatever their “second-place” votes were) and the totals are recalculated. Candidates continue to be eliminated one at a time and their votes reallocated until one candidate achieves a majority of votes.

In contrast to the top-two approach, this would increase voter choice and participation because voters could choose from all parties with qualified candidates without worrying about the wasted vote or spoiler effects. In a tight race under the current system, for example, one might be more ideologically aligned with the Green Party but not vote for her candidate of choice out of fear that such votes could take away from her second-choice candidate from the Democratic Party and that this splitting of the vote would lead to her perceived worst-case outcome: a victory for the Republican candidate. Others may not vote their conscience simply because they do not think their preferred third-party candidate can win (which helps ensure that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy). In an IRV system, however, the voter may rest assured that even if his first choice does not win, his vote still counts and he may be able to help his second-choice candidate win.

Instant-runoff voting is enjoying growing popularity and is currently in use in a number of cities, including San Francisco and Minneapolis. It will also be implemented in Oakland and Berkeley beginning in November 2010, and in Memphis in 2011. IRV is used to select the president of Ireland, the members of the Australian House of Representatives, the mayor of London, and even the winner of the Academy Awards’ Best Picture honor.

If California is to really address its fiscal imbalance and protect the quality of life of its residents, it must look far beyond electoral reforms. It must put a stop to its unsustainable spending and public pensions and address its woeful business climate if it is to hope to return to a state of fiscal responsibility. To that end, there are a number of reforms the state should undertake:

  • Implement a real spending limit that would cap spending growth at the rate of the increase in population plus the increase in the cost of living
  • Outsource services to the private or non-profit sectors wherever these firms and organizations can provide the same or better services as the government for less cost
  • Switch all new state employees to a 401(k)-style defined-contribution retirement system with pay and benefits comparable to those received in the private sector
  • Establish a debt limit that would prohibit the state from issuing debt or placing new bond measures on the ballot if the state’s debt service costs are more than 6% of the general fund
  • Improve the state’s business climate by reducing taxes and eliminating burdensome regulations
  • Eliminate unnecessary boards and commissions and low-priority or poorly-performing programs
  • Consolidate similar or duplicative government programs, agencies, and functions
  • Sell off unutilized or severely underutilized assets, as well as those that do not serve a core governmental purpose (such as sports stadiums and fairgrounds)
  • Implement the more than 1,200 recommendations made six years ago by the California Performance Review Commission that would save an estimated $32 billion over 5 years
  • Adopt performance measures and performance-based budgeting to streamline government and produce a more rational budget process

If we are to change the voting system for congressional, statewide, and legislative races, an instant-runoff voting system would be a much better alternative than an open primary, and would offer the benefits of actually increasing-not decreasing-voter choice and participation, but we should not kid ourselves that such a reform will resolve the state’s massive fiscal and budget problems.

Adam B. Summers is a policy analyst at the Reason Foundation.