Friday, September 29, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ryan Blethen / Times editorial columnist

IRV: affirming political choice

A democracy smugly disdainful of new ideas would be a sick democracy. A democracy chronically fearful of new ideas would be a dying democracy.

— Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1953

TACOMA — With the exception of the killer view of Mount Rainier and the Thea Foss Waterway, the small office on the 11th floor of a Pacific Avenue office building is not that impressive. Maps of each Pierce County legislative district are a welcome relief on walls of an indeterminate hue of something like dark blue, crimson and an almost invisible baby blue.

Despite the sparse furnishings and "why would they?" colors, this office tucked into the back of the Heritage Bank Building could be the place that gives voters the choices lost with the court-ordered death of the blanket and top-two primaries.

This is the headquarters for Yes On 3. The November ballot measure would change the Pierce County charter to make all elected county positions except for the prosecutor and judges decided by Instant Runoff Voting, or IRV.

If Pierce County voters choose IRV, it will be a solid first step toward wrangling some power from the Democrats and Republicans. An affirmation of more political choice could prove too infectious to be contained in Pierce County. That is the hope of the people behind Yes On 3.

"It needs to happen locally in a couple of places for it to go statewide," said Richard Anderson-Connolly, an associate professor in the Department of Comparative Sociology at the University of Puget Sound.

Here is how IRV works: Voters rank the candidates on the ballot in order of preference. A candidate wins if he or she gets a majority of the first-choice votes. The run-off happens when no candidate receives a majority. The last-place candidate is eliminated and those votes are transferred to the voters' second choices. A winner is declared when one candidate achieves a majority.

The Yes On 3 Web site ( has a useful visual demonstration of how IRV works.

One of the more delicious features of IRV is that the primary is eliminated. Good news for governments on tight budgets and for voters who want a say in picking the best candidate, not just the one deemed worthy by the parties.

The 38-year-old Anderson-Connolly is not new to efforts of election reform. In 2004, he worked on I-318, which would have instituted IRV statewide.

For this campaign, he is joined by Ryan Griffin, a 25-year-old Johnny Appleseed for electoral reform from Wisconsin. With his long hair pulled back and sharp face framed by sandy sideburns, he could resemble a compatriot of Thomas Jefferson if he wore a waistcoat, frock and breeches.

Griffin was turned on to IRV working for the nonpartisan Young Voters Project. The struggles faced while trying to get people to vote convinced him of the need for electoral reform. He believes IRV gives candidates the chance to be more consistent, thus better candidates.

Griffin is right. With no primary, a candidate would be remiss to change message, as is currently common once partisans have their overweighted say. Candidates from any — or no — party would need a consistent message because they would be speaking to the electorate as a whole.

This all sounds good. Too good. So I called Mark Stephan, who, as an assistant professor of political science at Washington State University, Vancouver, digests this stuff for a living. I asked him about IRV and "fusion" voting, a system that allows parties to endorse candidates from other parties, thus forcing the endorsed candidate to pay attention outside of the faithful. I liked what he said and would guess that most voters would, too.

"These things tend to be great if you favor candidates from third parties ... they are also really good for anybody who more broadly believes in having more choices," Stephan said.

A healthy democracy is about choice. A healthy democracy should also be able to absorb new ideas to improve the system. Why can we not have a serious discussion about proportional representation in Congress? Why can we not revisit the Electoral College?

Big questions that the two dominant parties would rather not tackle. Change is going to have to come from the states, counties and cities. Pierce County has a chance to lead the way by embracing a system that delivers power to the voters.

Ryan Blethen's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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