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Contact by phone: Howard Ditkoff at 248-968-9995
Tom Ness at 248-336-9241

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Ferndale, MI - June 25, 2004

Letters to the Editor
The Detroit News
615 W. Lafayette
Detroit, MI 48226

While sensitive to the News' concerns about "rushing" into a new voting system, I feel compelled to respond to several issues in your June 21, 2004 editorial entitled "Instant Runoff Voting Remains Too New for Ferndale Voters".


First, I believe that the News is correct that in order for Instant Runoff Voting to be seen as a reliable alternative it must be tested. Indeed, the system is well tested. It has been used in Australia for 80 years to elect its House of Representatives, is used to elect the mayor of London, the president of Ireland, and has even been used successfully by the citizens of Papua New Guinea. Many universities and colleges have successfully used the system all around the country, as have countless other voting bodies including the American Political Science Association itself.

Obviously its use in city elections in the U.S. is a natural next step, and the News wisely offered the exciting example of San Francisco, which will use IRV starting this fall for its city elections. Voting machines there have been fully tested and certified by California's Secretary of State and IRV will be used to elect the mayor, district attorney, sheriff, treasurer, city attorney, public defender, assessor and Board of Supervisors. The News is correct that in November 2004, San Francisco will only use IRV for its Supervisors races, however this is not because of any limits of the system, but rather simply because the other seats are not up for re-election this year. When they next come up for re-election, they will also be elected using IRV.

I found it curious that of the other possible examples of IRV's use in the U.S., the News chose to cite an obscure experimental demonstration election conducted by Minnesota's Independence Party as another major usage touted by IRV advocates. While the Independence Party's demonstration was successful, it is hardly the other major example to offer in tandem with San Francisco's. Far more compelling, though unmentioned in your editorial, is its successful usage by the Republican Party of Utah to select Congressional nominees and their gubernatorial candidate this year. How well has it worked there? Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff explains, "We took the advice of Robert's Rules of Order, which recommends instant runoff voting (called "preferential voting"), and have been very satisfied with the result. Some people expressed concern that it sounded complicated, but we discovered that voters had no difficulty with the rank-order ballots."


The News raises the issue of Instant Runoff Voting's positive effect on voter turnout rates. It mentions that European nations that use the system showed "dramatic increases in the voting (80-90 percent turnout) because people felt that their vote had the opportunity to count." It attributes this quote to Ferndale for Instant Runoff Voting. This quote, however, was not made by our group, but rather by Ferndale Mayor Robert Porter, who found these results in his independent research. The dramatic increase in voter turnout was also corroborated by Kevin Deegan-Krause, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Wayne State University, at Ferndale's recent City Council meeting.

The News seems to be implying that confusion over the system could actually lower voter turnout in Ferndale. Given the results wherever IRV has been used, this statement seems without basis and quite contrary to all evidence. Moreover, in a city where over 80% of registered voters failed to vote in the last mayoral election and over 92% didn't vote in a 2000 election, can it really get much worse? Isn't it time to try something new?


The News claims that looking at the online sample IRV ballot they perused - not specifying which ballot found at what website - raised the specter of Florida's 2000 "chad" and recount fiasco. Yet, IRV in Ferndale would use an optical scan ballot that would render any problems with chads obsolete. Furthermore, Ferndale, as a small city with about 17,000 registered voters, is actually an ideal place to try IRV specifically because the second round of counting, which is only necessary if no candidate receives a majority in the first round, could even be done easily by hand if necessary. A recount fiasco analogous to Florida's is simply inconceivable in dealing with such a small electorate.

Raising fears by linking the problems of Florida, a state with millions of voters, to the usage of a new system in a town the size of Ferndale seems unfounded. Indeed, isn't it because of the fact that any problems arising can be dealt with simply that the News promotes testing IRV in small voting bodies? How will it ever be tested if we assume that its use in a city of 17,000 registered voters will end in a fiasco on the level of a botched state election of historic proportions before we even try it?


San Francisco implemented Instant Runoff Voting partly in order to save the additional cost and effort of holding a second runoff election - or "delayed" runoff election - between the top two vote-getters if neither received a majority in the first round of voting. Indeed, IRV was a wise system to implement in that it helps ensure majority rule more efficiently in just one election. The News claims that, since Ferndale does not have "delayed" runoff election, there is no reason to implement Instant Runoff Voting as the solution to the "delayed" system's inefficiencies. However, this displays a misunderstanding of both the relationship between "delayed" and Instant Runoff Voting elections, as well as of the scope of issues that IRV helps to address.

IRV, rather than a cure for the poor system of "delayed" runoffs, is better seen as an improvement on the "delayed" system which itself is still better than the plurality system used in most American elections. The fact that Ferndale has plurality elections, rather than either "delayed" or Instant runoffs, far from justifying the status quo, paints an even more dire picture. At least the city should have some kind of runoff system to ensure that elected officials enjoy majority support. F-IRV simply feels it would be best to use the more efficient of the systems to obtain that outcome right from the start. Whereas some cities like San Francisco made a slight improvement with "delayed" runoffs, then upgraded to IRV, Ferndale has a chance to learn from their mistakes and start off with the best of the three systems immediately. Regardless of the potential problems with either system of runoffs, both are far preferable to the undermining of democracy that occurs when plurality winners take office with less than 50% demonstrated support.

The News' argument also overlooks the fact that IRV has many more benefits than just improving the system wherever "delayed" runoffs occur. For example, it encourages more and better candidates to run for office. The News seems to feel that since Ferndale has not had a need for runoffs in the recent past, IRV is unnecessary. However, it is quite possible that candidates who wish to run for office are, in fact, not running because of the fact that they do not wish to play a "spoiler" role. While the city's elections may seem to be working fine because only two candidates have run for mayor in recent years, that fact alone may itself be evidence of a problem.

IRV also improves the tone of campaigns and allows voters to vote for who they most want to win, rather than feeling compelled to strategically vote against the person they like least, among other benefits. This broad slate of benefits no doubt explains why IRV has been endorsed by members of all major political parties and many major media outlets. USA Today, for example, endorsed IRV in 2002, citing its ability to in fact help avoid some of the problems encountered in the 2000 election. This stands in sharp contrast to the News' assertions that IRV may recreate some of the problems that occurred in 2000.


It would be easy to make the case that IRV should be implemented immediately without any delay. This year's presidential campaign once again raises the prospect of a "spoiler" factor aiding in the election of a president who wins many states' electoral votes without majority support. Indeed, the real fiasco in 2000 in Florida was not the recount, but the fact that either Gore or Bush won all of Florida's electoral votes with less than 50% support in the state. Michigan's current attorney general also won with a plurality. On the local level, Ferndale's neighbor, Royal Oak, elected a mayor in 2001 without majority support. Anytime a third candidate runs for a single seat, democracy is in danger without a system that require 50% support to win. Should we wait until Ferndale finds itself in that scenario before acting? F-IRV believes not.

However, it is crucial to realize that the measure requested for November's ballot by F-IRV, if passed as our group has proposed it, would only go into effect in November 2005 for the mayoral race. This would allow a full year for education of the voters and limit its usage at first to one race in order to make it easier to focus on making sure the system works well before using it for more elections. This is very much in keeping with the type of gradual approach that the News advocates.


Kenneth Arrow of Stanford University proved over 50 years ago that no voting system is perfect. Democracy itself is also imperfect and requires experimentation with new ideas in order to renew itself. Any change will require a learning curve in order to work out certain problems. This is the inevitable price that we pay for all the benefits of a better system.

Despite these potential growing pains, there has never been a better time or place to try Instant Runoff Voting. Ferndale's voter turnout has hit rock bottom, it is a relatively small city with an extremely manageable number of voters, and as a politically divided city it is always in danger of falling prey to a plurality winner anytime a third-party candidate should decide to run for mayor. The lessons of recent presidential, state, and local elections make clear that the time to act is now so that we can move forward in improving the voting system, while offering a full year to work through the details of education and implementation. If every city sits back and waits for someone else to be the first, progress will never occur. We believe that Ferndale is a visionary, progressive city that is poised to become a leader in showing the state and the country how to run more fair elections that represent the people.

F-IRV is confident that if voters in Australia, England, Ireland, Papua New Guina, Utah's Republican Party, and countless others can manage to rank candidates 1-2-3 on a ballot, there is no reason to expect any less of Ferndale's citizens. Indeed, it is rather insulting to consider the claim that they would be unable to comprehend a system that has been used successfully among elementary school students. Even if Instant Runoff Voting proves imperfect, or takes a couple of cycles to perfect in Ferndale, its benefits far outweigh its costs, and, in comparison with a plurality system, it proves far more democratic.

I thank you for taking the time to read this response, and hope that, at some point soon, we may meet with the News' editorial board and have the opportunity to address the valid concerns raised in the editorial. We are confident that, given a chance to respond, we can shed light on these issues and perhaps persuade the News to reconsider, or perhaps even endorse our efforts. In the end, the crucial matter is that the voters of Ferndale have a system whereby their leaders truly represent the will of the people. I know that both Ferndale for Instant Runoff Voting and The Detroit News share this goal of true democracy, and I hope that with further dialogue we can explain better why we feel that Instant Runoff Voting is far likelier to obtain this cherished outcome than the current system used by Ferndale voters.

Howard Ditkoff
Coordinator, Ferndale for Instant Runoff Voting (F-IRV)

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