Article: County could get instant runoff system

Corvallis Gazette-Times

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Benton County could become the first jurisdiction in Oregon to adopt ranked choice voting if a proposed ballot measure gains traction with the electorate.

State Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, and Blair Bobier, a Corvallis attorney who cofounded the Pacific Green Party of Oregon, are launching a petition drive to put the measure on the November ballot.

“Right now we’re kind of gauging community support (for the idea),” Rayfield said. “We’ll start gathering signatures this weekend.”

Better Ballot Benton County, the group behind the measure, has already received an approved ballot title. Now the group needs to gather 2,895 valid signatures from registered voters in the county to qualify the proposal for the ballot.

If approved by Benton County voters, the measure would amend the county charter to implement ranked choice voting — also known as ranked preference or instant runoff voting — for countywide elective offices.

That means it would only apply to elections for sheriff and county commissioner. (The only other elected official for Benton County is the district attorney, but since the DA is a state employee, that position would not be covered by the change.)

Party primaries would still be conducted in the traditional way. In the general election, however, the ranked choice system would be used to choose the sheriff and county commissioners.

Here’s how it would work:

Instead of casting a vote for a single candidate, voters would rank all the candidates for each position in order of preference. If one person received a majority of first place votes, that candidate would win outright.

If nobody wins more than half the first place votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. The second place votes of the people who picked the defeated candidate are then counted, and the process is repeated until there is a clear winner.

Currently about two dozen jurisdictions around the country use some form of ranked preference voting for at least some of their elections, including San Francisco, Minneapolis, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Takoma Park, Maryland.

Rayfield said the system works best in races with more than two candidates. Using the 2000 presidential election as an example, he said ranked choice voting would have resulted in Democrat Al Gore defeating Republican George W. Bush.

Under the traditional electoral system, Ralph Nader’s third party campaign siphoned votes away from Gore, handing the hotly contested election to Bush (with the help of an unprecedented Supreme Court decision).

“This is a system where you eliminate the spoiler (effect), you eliminate strategic voting and you actually get the will of the people,” he said.

Bobier, who has been advocating for instant runoff voting for more than two decades, said the Oregon Constitution already includes a provision that allows this sort of electoral system.

He argues that it’s already working well in other jurisdictions and that it gives voters legitimate options beyond the two major parties.

“It makes the most sense. It really reflects how people think and how they want to vote,” he said.

“In my experience, it leads to better campaigning and more focus on the issues,” he added. “Ultimately, it’s just more fair and democratic. “

The proposal has the support of Benton County Commissioner Anne Schuster, who could have a chance to experience the system as a candidate if she runs for reelection in 2018.

“I think it give voters better choice,” she said. “You’re going after the best candidate rather than sticking by party.”

Corvallis Mayor Biff Traber also likes the idea, though he noted there is no current movement to implement ranked preference voting at the city level.

The biggest question in his mind is how well voters would adapt to the new system. For that reason, he’s happy to let Benton County experiment with ranked choice voting first.

“We’ll at least gain experience with it and learn where it works and where it doesn’t,” he said.

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